Ellington, Duke

Period: Early 20th Century

Born: Saturday, April 29, 1899 in Washington, DC (USA)

Died: Friday, May 24, 1974 in New York, New York (USA)

Nation of Origin: United States

Major Works:
Jazz Standards:
Black and Tan Fantasy
Black, Brown, and Beige
Creole Love Call
Harlem Air Shaft
Mood Indigo
Sophisticated Lady
Take the A Train

Other Information:
Ellington's actual name is Edward Kennedy Ellington. Even though the majority of his work was in popular jazz idioms, Ellington composed a small quantity of works for classical ensembles and one opera. His music has influenced many composers in a variety of idioms. Below is an essay from contributor, Richard V. Duffy, who is working on a book about Ellington.


In the year 1999, The Pulitzer Prize-Special Award was bestowed posthumously on Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington commemorating the centennial year of his birth, April 29, 1899; in recognition of his musical genius, which brought to the surface his sensitivity to art and beauty, for the principles of democracy-through the medium of jazz and popular music, made an indelible contribution to art and culture.

By the time of his passing, and even before that, Ellington was viewed as one of the greatest of all composers and musicians. The French government honored him with the highest award, the Legion of Honor; the United States government bestowed upon him the highest civil honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Duke was known to have entertained royalty, and, those whom abode in the more common idiom of life. By the end of his fifty-year entertainment span, Ellington had played over 20,000 performances-world wide....he was the Duke, the Duke of Ellington.

The Duke he was, but from where did this appropriate nickname originate. As it turns out, one of young Ellington's buddies saw in him a royal and outward appearance; the name stuck and became a mark of excellence for what was to come from the master. He was to become a genius associated with the most elegant musical creations in big band and vocal jazz; his genius encompassed instrumental combinations, improvisation, and jazz arranging from the incredible musical intuition brought to the world by the essence of the Ellington sound!

For his 70th birthday in 1969, the Duke was invited to the White House by President Nixen for a party. The party honored the great jazz man and paid tribute to the monumental contribution he has made to America's music. In 1943, Ellington had 950 compositions to his credit; by 1970, the count was in the thousands, and he was still writing. Ellington had become an American institution known around the world, and without doubt, the most prolific band leader-composer in the business. As a composer of jazz and popular music, he has had no peer.

"The wit, taste, intelligence, and elegance that Duke Ellington brought to his music has made him, in the eyes of millions of people both here and abroad, America's foremost composer."
President Richard Nixen

"I don't pursue anything. The only thing I always answer is my own impulse."
The Duke

Some of Duke's legendary sidemen, some of whom worked most of their careers with him were, Johnny Hodges, Elmer Snowden, Ben Webster, Joe Nance, Juan Tizol, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, Jimmie Hamilton, Oscar Pettiford, Willie Smith, Louie Bellson, Billy Strayhorn, Mercer Ellington, and the list goes on.

Duke Ellington's music has withstood the test of time; some of his legendary hits that are still being played today are: "Satin Doll," "Mood Indigo," "Solitude," "Cottontail," "Sophisticated Lady," "In A Sentimental Mood," "I let A Song Go Out Of My Heart," and his theme song, "Take The 'A' Train."

In my mind, Ellington stands out as one of the more important and prolific musicians of the century. He was one of the first black band leaders, and as well, an innovative one; the Duke wrote all types of music and styles from the solo jazz pieces for piano to 16 piece pop tunes to symphony orchestra pieces. Ellington's wide range of composing styles is quite prevalent in his collaborations with widely known artists; he composed a small quantity of works for classical ensembles and one opera; his music has influenced many composers in a variety of musical idioms.

Duke Ellington was born and raised in a middle-class environment in Washington DC. By the time he was seven years old, he was playing piano; his mother gave him lots of encouragement. When he graduated from high school, he was earning a living from music; in a very short time, he became an entrepreneur, supplying small bands for private and public dances. As both composer and conductor, Ellington also ventured successfully into the arena of religious music.

For 50 years, Ellington was leading one of the most incredible and self-defined orchestras in the history of jazz. Not only did the band hold a consistent musical image-that sprang from Ellington, the composer; for decades, the band also sustained with a loyal core of soloists who made their own marks in jazz history.

When did Ellington venture out in search of his destiny; he had a rendezvous with his ultimate desposition; to become the paramount entrepreneur and nourish a composite music that will be remembered for eternity. As to when Ellington actually got started, we go to John Edward Hasse, in his book BEYOND CATEGORY: THE LIFE AND GENUIS OF DUKE ELLINGTON (1993), we have more details to summarize:

"Ellington went to New York in March 1923 to play in Wilber Sweatman's band, along with his Washington DC buddies, Sonny Greer and Otto Hardwick. When Sweatman went on the road, Ellington, Greer, and Hardwick stayed in New York; they worked a few gigs, but did not find steady work; they returned to Washington D.C."

"In about June of 1923, Elmer Snowden, Otto Hardwick, Sonny Greer, and Arthur Whetsol took a train back to New York. They sent for Ellington, promising him work. Leaving his family again, confident of employment, he traveled in the style of a Duke...first-cabin...first-class train ticket. He arrived only to find that the gig had vanished-his friends were broke."

Hasse continued: "They found steady work later in the month; first in Atlantic City, then Harlem. The band performed, sometimes under Snowden's name, sometimes under Ellington's, during that year. Their important gig at the Hollywood Club began September, 1923 under Snowden's name; eventually, they became The Washingtonians, still under Snowden's leadership?"

After working under the baton of Snowden, Ellington realized something. How will he ever get to play his own music-the way he wants it played...put his own band together. So, lets look ahead and see what Ellington came up with in light of a band and a place to play. For this section, I'll take you to my "Big Band Alamac," by Leo Walker, copyright 1978.

If we look on page 116, we'll see a big band; Duke Ellington's 10 piece band, taken at the Kentucky Club in 1926; brass-trumpet and trombone, reeds-two tenors and one alto, one doubles on baritone, drummer, acoustic bass, two violins, alternately doubling on banjo and guitars, and of course, the master on keyboard. Whoops! I forget about the big instrument it the back row with a behemoth of a bell, otherwise known as a tuba! Looks like the Duke is ready for just about any kind of gig. By the way, it's not too uncommon today to find a bass trombone doubling with a tuba in large jazz orchestra; it provides the brass section with a unique sound, a flavor all its' own and blends in with the rest of the orchestra; you hardly know it's there-but it is, trust me!

This was truly the threshold of the Ellington sound that we know so well today; he blossomed and laid so much music on us, so fast, it was hard keeping up with him. Now we should hear what Leo Walker has to say about the Dukes entourage of musicians, where they performed, and for how long ...hm, that sounds like a lot to ask of Leo, but I'm sure he won't mind...after all, he wrote the book!

So in the year 1923, after all the commotion died down, "Ellington found his band booked into the Kentucky Club in New York; Duke and company were a smash hit; the gig lasted four years. During that time they began to record, and made their first radio broadcast; first theme song was adapted--"East St. Louis Toodle-oo." So the Kentucky Club gig folded; most gigs fold sooner or later. Right around the corner there was a club known as, The Cotton Club, waiting for the Duke and crew to adorn the stage. And wound you believe-another four year gig-which began in 1927."

Ellington's 10 piece ensemble had become one of the most popular in American. The Duke's popularity was not limited to the United States, for Europe was beckoning; to hear and see this incredible man and the music created with his genius. With their bags all packed, Ellington and his musicians headed out across the Atlantic to give the Europeans...a taste elegance-Duke Ellington. This first European sojourn took place in 1933; among their many appearances, one of them was the London Palladium; yet another tour was made in 1939.

Before they went on their first sojourn to Europe in 1933, Duke and a somewhat larger band, were at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago. Now if we go to Leo Walker's "Big Band Almanac," page 117, we can identify the musicians in that band; trumpets-Cootie Williams, Freddy Jenkins, and Arthur Whetsol, trombone and valve trombone-Joe Nanton and Juan Tizol, reeds-alto saxophone, Johnny Hodges, baritone saxophone, Harry Carney, bass-Wellman Brand, drums-Sonny Greer, guitar-Fred Guy, clarninet-Barny Bigard, and leader/piano, the master.

Actually, the band increased to twelve musicians; three trumpets, two trombones, three reeds, piano, guitar, bass, and drums. The added instruments provided the Duke with a broader scope in the area of composition. Ellington's band was, at times, referred to as an instrument; he would play this instrument as his mood would dictate, and compose accordingly. Ellington's compositions were growing in number to a point that would dictate a larger orchestra; a name more applicable to the larger band which is on it's way. On page 118 of Joe Walker's "Big Band Almanac," we see the band had grown into an orchestra status. I'll give you the instrumtation: Trumpets-four, trombones-three, reeds-five, Ellington sitting at a beautiful, white, grand piano, acoustic bass, and drums.

All toll, we're looking at a 16 piece orchestra-one that would take the Duke to the hight of his career...this was it!

Have you ever heard one of Duke's master compositions, one that had reached a height of nuance; with Ellington at the keyboard, he and the composition reached a level of sonorities, harmonics, and overtones-it is doubtless this masterpiece can be surpassed. Now your wondering which compossition are we talking about; "Sophisticated Lady," in Ab. I had the ordained pleasure of hearing Duke and his orchestra at Disneyland, in California, around 1970. Duke had asked the audience to write their request on a piece of paper. Duke came out to the edge of the stage and picked up the requests. Then into the microphone, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a lot of requests here, we'll do our best to get to as many as we can. But if we miss some, we still-love you madly." Back to the piano. Duke couldn't answer all the requests, that would take all night; some were answered, and when I heard "Sophisticated Lady, " it made my evening!

Contrary to popular belief, Ellington's theme song, "Take The A Train," was written and arranged by Billy Strayhorn, who joined the orchestra in 1939; he was a quiet and gentle man who was to become an important link within the Ellington success story as arranger, composer, and at times, piano player. Entering the orchestra along with Strayhorn was the incredible sound of Ben Webster and his tenor saxophone; to be witnessed as a soloist extraordinary. The orchestra was complemented with some of the finest musicians in the business. One of them stands out as having the epitome of tonality; when Johnny Hodges plays his alto, it abodes with lyricism, he very definitely reaches the nuance of intonation. Another musician that stands out is, Juan Tizol-he wrote "Perdido." Actually, the list goes on; from the beginning, to the Duke's final hour.

From Lycos Music-Internet, we have a quote from Ellington:

Among the Duke's many classic compositions is, "Mood Indigo." Of this haunting and melancholy work, Duke had this to say...

"Just a story about a little girl and a little boy. They are about eight and the girl loves the boy. They never speak of it, of course, but she just likes the way he wears his hat. Every day he comes to her house at a certain time and she sits in her window and waits. Then one day he doesn't come. "Mood Indigo" just tells how she feels."

Details of the story are revealed in the tune itself. These represent the genuineness of sophistication which characterizes the Ellington mark of simplicity; his music. Never do you find Ellington's music lying in disorder; it moves lightly and politely to the listener's ear.

Earlier, we mentioned the number of Duke's compositions. Now, from another source, Derek Jewell, in his biography of the Duke, he estimated that the Duke had written at least 2000 pieces. Lycos Music-Internet steps in with this:

"Because of his (Jewell) cavalier way with pieces of papers, it might have been as many as 5000. Among them, many have become popular standards: "In A sentimental Mood," "Don't Get Around Much Any More," "I'm Beginning To See The Light," as a selected few.

At the Newport Jazz Festival, which took place on July 7, 1956, the morale was down. Ellington had two harps and a string section. The first set was embarrassing. When he arrived onstage, he found four of his musicians missing. After playing a few numbers, the band disappeared. At midnight, the band returned, everyone of them; they played the Newport Jazz Festival Suite-composed by Strayhorn for the festival. Ellington thought it was time for, "Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue." The work was scored about 20 years before; this was not an item on their regular concert agenda. The work had two sections, linked by the bridge passage with the tenor saxophone of Paul Gonsalvez; the chart was manifested! Tenor man Gonsalvez, blew 27 choruses...you could hear a rumbling in the crowed-a potential cataclysmic eruption-the audience went into orbit; the orchestra played several encores. The jazz grapevine was in motion; news of this collossal event went around the world; Time Magazine scored a detailed story of the event while a picture of Ellington occupied the cover!

Before we continue, let us take a look at the Duke's rendezvous with Shakespear; with Strayhorn running shotgun. "Such Sweet Thunder," his Shakespearean suite, contains gems like "Lady Mac"-'Though she was a lady of noble birth, we suspect there was a bit of ragtime in her soul'-and "Madness In Great Ones," dedicated to Hamlet. Further collaborations with Strayhorn encompassed a rework of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcraker Suite" and the "Far East Suite." Was there anything the Duke couldn't score?

It's doubtless!

On the other side of Ellington's musical entourage of works, we find a writer of religious music; later in his years, he focused on the writing and performance of sacred music. If we go back to 1945, we find one of his masterpieces, "Black, Brown, And Beige," and from that piece we have, "Come Sunday."

From Lycos Music-Internet:

"And beyond that, 10 years earlier "Reminiscing In Tempo"...

Following the death of his mother; the Duke had this to say,

"My mother's death was the greatest shock. I didn't do anything but brood. The music is represented of all that; beginning with pleasant thoughts. Then something awful gets you down. Then you snap out of it and it ends affirmatively."

For a man who was contemptuous-to dismiss analysis, this represented a rather clever assessment, not only of the work itself, but of his entire output.

The Ellington orchestra worked within the guidelines of big band protocol-four brass, three trombones, five saxophones, bass, drums, and a piano player that made the instrument breath; they produced music of an excellent quality. Ellingtons' themes were remarkable in their simplistic nature, as if he had plucked them from the trees of a musical forest. The tonal qualities of the orchestra were characteristic of the Ellington sound; a breed of musicians, the sound of which, are a collection of articulated masters of their trade; all representing the sophistication of musical tonality.

In addition to the awards already mentioned, the Duke was awarded two doctorates from Harvard and Yale Universities; membership in the American Institute of Arts and Letters. He was elected as the first jazz musician of the Royal Music Academy in Stockholm.

Returning to the big band scene, the downward trend of popularity, by the mid-fifties, most bands were on the sidelines. The Ellington orchestra was an exceptional to the rule; one of the few orchestras that survived-they remained active on a full-time basis.

However, it was entirely different. Gone were the theaters in which the Duke's orchestra was once showcased; top night clubs and hotels for giging were virtually nonexistence; only an occasional performance in the few ballrooms was to be counted on. To stay busy meant an occasional ballroom...a series of one-nighters. These, and an occasional tour would keep Ellington busy; in addition, he would have time to write, produce, and conduct several ambitious stage productions and concerts!


Richard V. Duffy
Used by permission of the author.

Essay contributed by:
Richard V. Duffy

General Bibliography:
Slonimsky, Nicolas, Music Since 1900, Schirmer Books, July 1994, ISBN: 0028724186

Salzman, Eric, Twentieth Century Music: An Introduction, Pearson, October 2001, ISBN: 0130959413

Slonimsky, Nicolas and Kuhn, Laura; Editors, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Gale Group, December 2000, ISBN: 0028655257

Sadie, Stanley and Tyrrell, John; Editors, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Groves Dictionaries, Inc., January 2004, ISBN: 0195170679

Rutherford-Johnson, Tim, Kennedy, Michael, and Kennedy, Joyce The Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford University Press, 6th Edition, 2012, ISBN: 0199578109

Links to essays at other sites:

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Biographical essay from Wikipedia
Fred Barret's Biography of Ellington

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