Ellington, Duke (1899-1974)

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Ellington, Duke (1899-1974)

Heralded by many as the greatest composer in jazz history, pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington composed and arranged most of the music played by his famous orchestra. His 1932 recording of "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" gave a name to the Swing Era, when jazz music and jitterbug dancing swept the nation in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Born Edward Kennedy Ellington into a modestly prosperous family in Washington, D.C., he began studying piano at age seven. His graceful demeanor earned him the aristocratic nickname, Duke. Continuing to study piano formally, as well as learning from the city's ragtime pianists, Ellington formed his own band at age 19, and soon was earning enough playing for parties and dances to marry Edna Thompson. The band's drummer was his friend, Sonny Greer, who would anchor the Duke's rhythm section for the next 33 years.

After moving to New York City in 1923, Ellington began assembling jazz musicians whose unique sounds enhanced his own arrangements. With his new ensemble, he launched Duke Ellington and the Washingtonians. The band first worked for the legendary singer Ada Smith (better known later in European clubs as Bricktop). In 1924 Ellington wrote his first score for a revue, Chocolate Kiddies, which ran for two years in Germany, but was never produced on Broadway.

The band's big break came in 1927, when it began a five-year engagement at Harlem's Cotton Club, the site of frequent national broadcasts. Soon the Ellington name was widely known for Duke's signature style of improvisational and ensemble jazz. His earliest arrangements included what he at first called the "jungle style," which achieved unusual effects and rhythms through the use of plunger mutes on the trumpets and trombones. Major sidemen who joined the Duke Ellington Band in the Cotton Club era included Barney Bigard on clarinet, Johnny Hodges on alto and soprano sax, and Cootie Williams on the trumpet. The ensemble's first great recorded hit was "Mood Indigo" of 1930, which featured the band's inimitable tonal colors, made possible by the special sounds and styles of each individual musician. In 1933, a tour of England and the Continent brought the band worldwide fame.

With very little change in personnel over the beginning years, the orchestra was able to play with unheard-of ensemble precision. Such melodic recordings as "Solitude," "Sophisticated Lady," and "In a Sentimental Mood," won Ellington and his band a wide audience. But it was the uniquely orchestrated ensemble jazz in such pieces as "Daybreak Express," "Harlem Speaks," and "Rockin' in Rhythm," that impressed fellow jazzmen such as Billy Strayhorn, who joined the band as assistant arranger in 1939. It was Strayhorn's composition "Take the A Train," which became the orchestra's theme song.

In 1943 the band began a series of annual concerts in Carnegie Hall that would continue until 1950. The first concert included Ellington's earliest attempt at a nearly hour-length jazz composition, Black, Brown, and Beige, which he envisioned as a "musical history of the Negro." It was his most ambitious work to date, one which musicologist and composer Gunther Schuller believes has "not been surpassed" in "scope and stature." In subsequent Carnegie Hall concerts Ellington played such lengthy compositions as Deep South Suite, Blutopia, and New World A-Comin'. Harlem, another suite, was the centerpiece of an Ellington concert at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1951.

Although the Ellington ensemble continued to be ranked as one of the top two or three jazz orchestras during the 1950s, their difficult repertoire, coupled with frequent personnel changes, led to spotty performances that were often disappointing to their fans. However, after giving a smash-hit performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, followed by a 1957 CBS-TV special on Ellington entitled A Drum Is a Woman, the band's fortunes were revived, and the Duke began a period of prolific composing. He and Strayhorn wrote a suite based on Shakespearean characters, Such Sweet Thunder, performed at New York's Town Hall in 1957. In 1958, his first European tour in eight years proved a stunning success—one that he repeated the following year. In 1959 Ellington wrote his first score for a film, Alfred Hitchcock's Anatomy of a Murder, which was recorded by Ellington's band.

Up until his death of lung cancer in May of 1974, Ellington continued to write important music, much of it devoted to other cultures and to religious themes. For more than a half century, Duke had led one of America's most popular and successful bands. As George T. Simon wrote, "No other bandleader ever did this nearly so long so well as Duke Ellington. No other bandleader created as much and contributed as much to American music." A chorus of jazz critics agrees that Duke may be the greatest single talent in the history of jazz.

—Benjamin Griffith

Further Reading:

Balliett, Whitney. American Musicians. New York, Oxford Press, 1986.

Schuller, Gunther. "The Ellington Style: It's Origins and Early Development." In Jazz, edited by Nat Hentoff and Albert J. McCarthy. New York, Da Capo Press, 1974.

Simon, George T. The Big Bands. New York, MacMillan, 1974.

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Ellington, Duke (1899-1974)

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