A native of Washington, D.C., Edward Kennedy Ellington was born on April 29, 1899. Edward was raised in a middle-class home in the Northwest section of Washington described by his sister Ruth--younger by sixteen years--as a "house full of love." Ellington himself wrote that his father J.E. (James Edward) raised his family "as though he were a millionaire" but Edward reserved devotion for his mother, Daisy Kennedy Ellington. In 1969, thirty-four years after his mother's death, Ellington accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom with these words, "There is nowhere else I would rather be tonight but in my mother's arms." Both his parents played the piano and Ellington began piano lessons at the age of seven, but like many boys he was easily distracted by baseball.
In his early teens, Ellington sneaked into Washington clubs and performance halls where he was exposed to ragtime musicians, including James P. Johnson, and where he met people from all walks of life. He returned in earnest to his piano studies and at age fourteen wrote his first composition, "Soda Fountain Rag" aka "Poodle Dog Rag." Ellington was earning income from playing music at seventeen years of age and around this time he earned the sobriquet "Duke" for his sartorial splendor and regal air. On July 2, 1918, he married a high school sweetheart, Edna Thompson; their only child, Mercer Kennedy Ellington, was born on March 11, 1919. Duke Ellington spent the first twenty-four years of his life in Washington's culturally thriving Negro community. In this vibrant atmosphere he was inspired to be a composer and learned to take pride in his African-American heritage.
Ellington moved to New York City in 1923 to join and eventually lead a small group of transplanted Washington musicians called the "Washingtonians," which included future Ellington band members, Sonny Greer, Otto Hardwicke and "Bubber" Miley. Between 1923 and 1927, the group played at the Club Kentucky on Broadway and the ensemble increased from a quintet to a ten-piece orchestra. With stride pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith as his unofficial guide, Ellington soon became part of New York's music scene; Smith proved to be a long-lasting influence on Duke's composing and arranging direction. At the Club Kentucky, Ellington came under the tutelage of another legendary stride pianist, "Fats" Waller. Waller, a protege of Johnson and Smith, played solos during the band's breaks and also tutored Ellington who began to show progress in his compositions. In November, 1924, Duke made his publishing and recording debut with "Choo Choo (I Got To Hurry Home)" released on the Blu-Disc label. In 1925, he contributed two songs to Chocolate Kiddies, an all-black revue which introduced European audiences to black-American styles and performers. By this time Ellington's family, Edna and Mercer, had joined him in New York City. The couple separated in the late 1920's but they never divorced or reconciled.
Ellington's achievements as a composer and bandleader began to attract national attention while he worked at the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York City, from 1927 to 1932. The orchestra developed a distinctive sound that displayed the non-traditional voicings of Ellington's arrangements and featured the unique talents of the individual soloists. Ellington integrated his soloists' exotic-sounding trombone growls and wah-wahs, their high-squealed trumpets, their sultry saxophone blues licks and Harlem's street rhythms into his arrangements. In the promotional material of the Cotton Club, the band was often billed as "Duke Ellington and His Jungle Band." With the success of compositions like "Mood Indigo," and an increasing number of recordings and national radio broadcasts from the Cotton Club, the band's reputation soared.
The ten years from 1932 to 1942 are considered by some major critics to represent the "golden age" for the Ellington Orchestra but it represents just one of their creative peaks. These years did bring an influx of extraordinary new talent to the band including Jimmy Blanton on double bass, Ben Webster on tenor saxophone and Ray Nance on trumpet, violin and vocals. During this 10-year span Ellington composed several of his best known short works, including "Concerto For Cootie," "Ko-Ko," "Cotton Tail," "In A Sentimental Mood," and Jump For Joy, his first full-length musical stage revue.
Most notably, 1938 marked the arrival of Billy Strayhorn. While a teenager in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Strayhorn had already written "Lush Life," "Something To Live For" and a musical, Fantastic Rhythm. Ellington was initially impressed with Strayhorn's lyrics but realized long before Billy's composition "Take the A' Train" became the band's theme song in 1942 that Strayhorn's talents were not limited to penning clever lyrics. By 1942, "Swee' Pea" had become arranger, composer, second pianist, collaborator and as Duke described him, "my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine." Many Ellington/Strayhorn songs have entered the jazz canon and their extended works are still being discovered and studied today. Strayhorn remained with the Ellington Organization until his death on May 30, 1967.
Ellington had often hinted of a work in progress depicting the struggle of blacks in America. The original script, Boola, debuted in Carnegie Hall in November of 1943 retitled, Black, Brown and Beige. The performance met with mixed reviews and although Ellington often returned to Carnegie Hall the piece was never recorded in a studio and after 1944 was never performed in entirety again by the Ellington Orchestra. Nonetheless, it is now considered a milestone in jazz composition.
After World War II the mood and musical tastes of the country shifted and hard times befell big bands but Ellington kept his band together. The band was not always financially self-sufficient and during the lean times Ellington used his songwriting royalties to meet the soloists' salaries. One could assign to Ellington the altruistic motive of loyalty to his sidemen but another motivation may have been his compositional style which was rooted in hearing his music in the formative stage come alive in rehearsal. "The band was his instrument," Billy Strayhorn said and no Ellington composition was complete until he heard the orchestra play it. Then he could fine tune his compositions, omit and augment passages or weave a soloist's contribution into the structure of the tune.
In 1956, the American public rediscovered Duke and the band at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. The searing performances of tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves on "Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue," his premiere soloist, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges on "Jeep's Blues" and the crowd's ecstatic reaction have become jazz legend. Later that year Duke landed on the cover of Time magazine. Although Ellington had previously written music for film and television (including the short film, Black and Tan Fantasy in 1929) it wasn't until 1959 that Otto Preminger asked him to score music for his mainstream film, Anatomy of a Murder, starring Jimmy Stewart. Paris Blues in 1961, featuring box-office stars Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier in roles as American jazz musicians in Paris, followed.
Ellington's first performance overseas was in England in 1933 but the 1960's brought extensive overseas tours including diplomatic tours sponsored by the State Department. Ellington and Strayhorn composed exquisite extended works reflecting the sights and sounds of their travels, including the Far East Suite, 1966. They wrote homages to their classical influences; in 1963, they adapted Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite and celebrated Shakespeare's works with the suite Such Sweet Thunder in 1957. With Ella Fitzgerald, they continued the Norman Granz Songbook Series. Ellington also began to flex his considerable pianist skills and recorded albums with John Coltrane (1963), Coleman Hawkins (1963), Frank Sinatra and Money Jungle (1963) with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. The First Sacred Concert debuted in San Francisco's Grace Cathedral in 1965. In his final years, Ellington's thoughts turned to spiritual themes and he added a Second (1968) and Third (1973) Concert of Sacred Music to his compositions.
In his lifetime, Duke received numerous awards and honors including the highest honor bestowed on an American civilian, the Congressional Medal Of Freedom. In 1965, Ellington was recommended for a Pulitzer Prize to honor his forty years of contribution to music but the recommendation was rejected by the board. Most likely he was disappointed, but his response at the age of 66 was, "Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be famous too young."
Ellington never rested on his laurels or stopped composing. Whenever he was asked to name his favorite compositions his characteristic reply was "the next five coming up," but to please his loyal fans Ellington always featured some of his standards in every performance. Even on his deathbed, he was composing the opera buffo called Queenie Pie.
Duke Ellington died on May 24, 1974 at seventy-five years of age. His funeral was held in New York's Cathedral of St. John The Divine; he was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. His long-time companion Beatrice "Evie" Ellis was buried beside him after her death in 1976. He was survived by his only child, Mercer Kennedy Ellington, who not only took up the baton to lead the Duke Ellington Orchestra but assumed the task of caring for his father's papers and his legacy to the nation. Mercer Ellington died in Copenhagan, Denmark on February 8, 1996, at the age of seventy-six. Ruth Ellington Boatwright, Duke's only sibling, lives in New York City. Both Mercer and Ruth were responsible for shepherding the documents and artifacts that celebrate Duke Ellington's genius and creative life to their current home in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.
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