Ellington, Edward Kennedy "Duke"

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Ellington, Edward Kennedy "Duke"

April 29, 1899
May 24, 1974

One of the supreme composers of the twentieth century, Edward Kennedy Ellington was born into a comfortable middle-class family in Washington, D.C. The son of a butler, Ellington received the nickname "Duke" as a child because of the care and pride he took in his attire. As he grew older, his aristocratic bearing and sartorial elegance made the nickname stick. Although he took piano lessons starting in 1906, he was also a talented painter, and before he finished high school he was offered an NAACP-sponsored painting scholarship for college. By this time, however, his interests were again turning toward music, especially rag-time and stride piano. By 1918, when Ellington married Edna Thompson, he was leading a band that played popular tunes in a ragtime style at white "society" events. To support his wife and son, Mercer, who was born in 1919, Ellington also worked as a sign painter.

In 1923, encouraged by pianist Fats Waller, Ellington moved to New York to be the pianist and arranger for the Washingtonians. When the leader of the ensemble, Elmer Snowden, left in 1924, Ellington took over and led the band in his first appearances on record. The Washingtonians had extensive stays at the Club Hollywood, later called the Kentucky Club, from 1924 to 1927. In this formative period, Ellington's key influence was the trumpeter Bubber Miley (19031932), whose guttural, plungermuted style added a robust, blues-tinged element to Ellington's previously genteel compositions and arrangements. Miley's growling, mournful solos inspired Ellington's most important compositions in the 1920s, including "East St. Louis Toodle-O" (1926), "Black and Tan Fantasy" (1927), and "The Mooche" (1928). Another important composition from this period, "Creole Love Call" (1927), features a wordless obbligato by vocalist Adelaide Hall.

On December 4, 1927, Ellington's band debuted at Harlem's Cotton Club, an all-white nightclub. The engagement lasted on and off for four years and gave Ellington a national radio audience, as well as the chance to accompany a variety of chorus and specialty dance numbers and vocalists, often portraying "primitive" and "exotic" aspects of African-American culture. It was in this environment that he perfected the style, marked by energetic climaxes and haunting sonorities, that became known as his "jungle music."

The Cotton Club engagement made Ellington one of the best-known musicians in jazz, famed not only for his eminently danceable tunes, but also for compositions that attracted the attention of the classical music world. During the 1930s the orchestra toured the United States extensively, and they made trips to Europe in 1933 and 1939. Ellington's 1930s recordings, which achieved a great success among both white and black audiences, include "Ring Dem Bells" (1930), "Mood Indigo" (1930), "Rockin' in Rhythm" (1931), "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" (1932), "Sophisticated Lady" (1932), "Day-break Express" (1933), "Solitude" (1934), "In a Sentimental Mood" (1935), trombonist Juan Tizol's "Caravan" (1937), "I Let a Song Go out of My Heart" (1938), and "Prelude to a Kiss" (1938). Ellington's early 1940s band is often considered the best he ever led. Bolstered by tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, bassist Jimmy Blanton, and Ellington's assistant, composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn, the orchestra recorded a number of masterpieces, including "Ko-Ko" (1940), "Concerto for Cootie" (1940), "In a Mellow Tone" (1940), "Cotton Tail" (1940), "Perdido" (1942), and "C-Jam Blues" (1942), as well as Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge" (1941) and "Take the A Train" (1941). Ellington also recorded in groups led by clarinetist Barney Bigard, trumpeters Cootie Williams and Rex Stewart, and saxophonist Johnny Hodges.

In the 1940s Ellington became increasingly interested in extended composition. Though he was the greatest master of the four-minute jazz composition, he chafed against the limitations of the length of a 78-rpm record side. As early as 1934 he wrote the score for the short film Symphony in Black, and the next year recorded Reminiscing in Tempo, a contemplative work taking up four sides. His greatest extended composition was the fifty-minute Black, Brown and Beige, which premiered at Carnegie Hall on January 23, 1943. This work, which included the hymnlike "Come Sunday" passage, depicted African Americans at work and at prayer, with vignettes on aspects of history from emancipation to the development of Harlem

as a black community. Other extended works from this period include New World-a-Comin' (1943), The Liberian Suite (1947), and The Tattooed Bride (1948). Ellington continued to issue shorter recordings, but there were fewer memorable short compositions after the mid-1940s, though "The Clothed Woman" (1947) and "Satin Doll" (1953) were notable exceptions. In addition to composing and conducting, Ellington was an excellent pianist in the Harlem stride tradition, and he recorded memorable duets with the bassist Jimmy Blanton in 1940.

During the bebop era of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Ellington's band declined in influence. However, their performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, featuring the saxophonist Paul Gonsalves's electrifying solo on "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," reaffirmed their reputation and earned Ellington a cover article in Time magazine. After this, Ellington took the orchestra to Europe, Japan, the Middle East, India, South America, and Africa. The orchestra also made albums with Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and John Coltrane, and Ellington recorded as part of a trio with the drummer Max Roach and the bassist Charles Mingus. Among his many later extended compositions are Harlem (1951), A Drum Is a Woman (1956), Such Sweet Thunder (1957), The Queen's Suite (1959), The Far East Suite (1967), and Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (1971). Ellington also composed film scores for Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and the Oscar-nominated Paris Blues (1961). He composed music for ballets by the choreographer Alvin Ailey (19311989), including The River (1970) and Les Trois rois noirs, which has a section dedicated to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was composed in Ellington's final years and premiered in 1976. In his last decade, Ellington also wrote religious music for three events he called "Sacred Concerts" (1965, 1968, 1973). These were vast productions that evoked his strong sense of spirituality through gospel and choral music, dancing, and thankful hymns.

Starting with the 1943 Black, Brown and Beige, many of Ellington's extended works were tributes to his African-American heritage and demonstrations of his pride in the accomplishments of African Americans. His many shorter depictions of Harlem range from the elegiac "Drop Me Off in Harlem" (1933) to the boisterous "Harlem Airshaft" (1940). Perhaps his most personal tributes are his two musicals, Jump for Joy (including "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," 1942), and My People (1963), both dealing with the theme of integration. The latter includes the song "King Fit the Battle of Alabam."

Ellington's music was collaborative. Many of his works were written by band members, and many more were written collectively, by synthesizing and expanding riffs and motifs into unified compositions. Ellington's compositions were almost always written with a particular band member's style and ability in mind. His collaborator Strayhorn remarked that, while Ellington played piano, his real instrument was his orchestra. Ellington was an exceptionally original musical thinker whose orchestral sound was marked by instrumental doublings on reeds, ingenious combinations of instruments, and the carefully crafted use of a variety of muted brasses. The diversity of the band was remarkable, containing an extraordinary variety of masterful and distinctive soloists, ranging from the smooth, sensuous improvisations of saxophonist Johnny Hodges to the gutbucket sounds of trumpeter Cootie Williams and trombonist "Tricky Sam" Nanton.

In the ever-changing world of the big bands, the Ellington orchestra's core roster seldom changed. The most important of his band members, with their tenures parenthetically noted, include trumpeters William "Cat" Anderson (19441947, 19501959, 19611971), Bubber Miley (19241929), Rex Stewart (19341945), Arthur Whetsol (19231924, 19281936), and Cootie Williams (19291940, 19621973); violinist and trumpeter Ray Nance (19401963); trombonists Lawrence Brown (19321951, 19601970), Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton (19261946), and Juan Tizol (19291944, 19511953); alto saxophonists Otto Hardwick (19231928, 19321946), Johnny Hodges (19281951, 19551970), and Russell Procope (19461974); tenor saxophonists Paul Gonsalves (19501970, 19721974) and Ben Webster (19401943, 19481949); baritone saxophonist Harry Carney (19271974); clarinetists Barney Bigard (19271942) and Jimmy Hamilton (19431968); vocalists Ivie Anderson (19311942) and Al Hibbler (19431951); drummer Sonny Greer (19231951); bassist Jimmy Blanton (19391941); and composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn (19391967).

During his lifetime, Ellington was celebrated as a commanding figure in American culture. He cherished the many awards and honorary degrees he earned, including the Spingarn Medal (1959) and eleven Grammy Awards. Ellington remained gracious, though many were outraged by the refusal of a 1965 Pulitzer Prize committee, firmly opposed to recognizing "popular" music, to give him a special award for composition. In 1970 Ellington was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Nixon and was feted with a seventieth-birthday celebration at the White House. He died of cancer on May 24, 1974.

Since Ellington's death, his orchestra has been led by his son, Mercer, himself a trumpeter and composer of note. In 1986 Duke Ellington became the first African-American jazz musician to appear on a U.S. postage stamp. Since the 1980s there has been a growing interest in Ellington among scholars, particularly in the extended compositions, and among jazz fans, who have had access to a wealth of previously unreleased recordings. Such attention, which hit a peak in 1999, the centennial of his birth, inevitably confirms Ellington's status not only as the greatest composer and bandleader in jazz, but as a figure unique in the history of twentieth-century music.

See also Cotton Club; Jazz; Jazz in African-American Culture; Music in the United States; Spingarn Medal


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martin williams (1996)
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