The Early Years Duke Ellington was born in Washington D.C. on April 29, 1899. His parents were James Edward Ellington and Daisy Kennedy Ellington. His parents were fairly well off, and taught him good manners. His well mannered attitude got him the nickname “Duke” from a childhood friend. He began playing the piano at age 7, and seemed to show a natural talent even at a young age. At age 17 he turned down a scholarship to the Pratt Institute, and pursued a career in music.
James P. Johnson Luckey Roberts Some of the inspiration for Ellington’s jazz piano style came from stride pianists James P. Johnson, and Luckey Roberts. He also got some of his inspiration from rag-time style music.
Early on in Ellington’s career he played in small clubs, and private dances in the Washington D.C. area. He made very little money, and had to hold a job on the side to make ends meet. One of the unique things about Ellington’s music is the fact that it was appealing to both white and African-American listeners. The band that Ellington played with while he was in the Washington D.C. area consisted of a bass, a saxophone, a trumpet, a banjo, drums, and Ellington himself, on the piano.
New York In 1923 Duke Ellington moved to New York, and his career began to take off. He began doing small gigs in Harlem, but eventually scored gigs at more prestigious clubs and began to make a name for himself. Ellington also met Bubber Miley in 1923, a trumpet player with a unique “growl” technique that became a famous part of Ellington’s sound. The unique growl sound that Miley used gave the bands sound the nickname “jungle style.” He also made his first recordings in 1924 “ChooChoo (Gotta Hurry Home),” and “Rainy Nights (Rainy Days).”
I have attached a link to give an example of Bubber Miley’s growl technique. The song is called “Black and Tan Fantasy.” At about 1:07 into the song you can hear the growl technique being used. Bubber Miley “Black and Tan Fantasy” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GN3_c1OnA3s
Cootie Williams “Concerto for Cootie” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Khx57rG4MoI Even though Bubber Miley didn’t stay with the band very long, his technique was still used by future trumpet players in the Ellington orchestra. Here is another example of the “jungle style.” In this song, called “Concerto for Cootie,” a famous trumpet player who stayed with Ellington’s band for a long time, Cootie Williams, shows off a little bit of his soloing ability. At about 1:32 into the video you can hear him using the growl technique.
Irving Mills In 1926 Ellington hired Irving mills as his manager. Irving Mills was a white music publisher that helped many songwriters publish their music. He and his brother Jack founded Mills Music Inc. and they became one of the largest independent music publishing companies in the world. The period of Ellington’s career that was managed by Mills was one of the most successful periods of his career.
In 1927 Ellington’s band began playing at the Cotton Club in Harlem. While at the Cotton Club he performed for various different shows and dances, and had a weekly radio broadcast. He became nationally known thanks to the weekly radio broadcasts. He continued to play at the Cotton Club until the early 1930’s, when he left to do various tours. He would return to the Cotton Club occasionally throughout the 30’s and in the early 40’s.
“Black and Tan” In 1929 Duke Ellington was in his first movie “Black and Tan”. “Black and Tan” is a short film starring Duke Ellington and his orchestra. It is a 19 minute tragedy, that features some of Ellington’s early jazz music. I’ve linked two of the songs from the soundtrack to the movie. “Cotton Club Stomp” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2vDYERv2WE “Hot Feet” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=McAPzPeAY4k
Touring Duke Ellington toured the U.S. and Europe in the 1930’s and upgraded his band to a 14 piece orchestra. He also wrote some swing music to accommodate the changes in taste. Even with the new swing craze going on in the thirties he still managed to maintain his style, and wrote many great songs throughout the thirties.
This is a great song that shows the swing style. In fact this song was considered one of the defining standards to what “swing” was meant to sound like. It was written in 1931 by Duke Ellington with the vocals written by Irving Mills. The vocals were sung by Ivie Anderson. Ivie Anderson “It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it Aint Got That Swing)” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FvsgGp8rSE
The 1930’s “Mood Indigo” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GohBkHaHap8 “Sophisticated Lady” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8LLfFY9pQg&feature=fvst “Mood Indigo” is one of the most famous songs. It was written by Duke Ellington and Barney Bigard in 1930. Barney Bigard was a clarinet player for Ellington’s band. The clarinet player in the video is not Barney Bigard. “Sophisticated Lady” is another one of Duke Ellington’s more famous songs. This song was written by Duke Ellington in 1933.
In 1939 Duke Ellington hired Billy Strayhorn to assist with writing lyrics, but later on he became an important part of the Ellington Orchestra. He worked with Ellington as an assistant composer until his death in 1967. He helped Ellington compose many great pieces of music, including probably his most famous song “Take the “A” train.” Billy Strayhorn and Ellington worked so well together, it is said that its nearly impossible to tell the difference between Strayhorn’s and Ellington’s part’s in the different songs they wrote together. Duke Ellington is on the left, Billy Strayhorn is on the right.
“Take the “A” Train http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cb2w2m1JmCY “Take the “A” Train” is one of the songs that the Ellington orchestra is most famous for. It was actually written by Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s assistant composer. It was written in 1941.
The 1940’s The 1940’s were a fairly successful time for the Ellington orchestra. He wrote and recorded many great songs, including: “Ko-Ko,” “Harlem Airshaft,” “Jack the Bear,” and “Take the “A” Train.” He also brought some new people to the band, including : Jimmy Blanton on the double bass (for a short while), Ben Webster on the saxophone, and Ray Nance on the trumpet.
Jimmy Blanton was only with the Ellington orchestra for a short while, but his contributions to the jazz community were amazing. He was the first double bass jazz musicians to solo with the double bass. He died at a very young age to tuberculosis, but his contributions to jazz will live on forever. I’ve linked a couple songs that show Jimmy Blanton’s double bass solo’s. “Jack the Bear” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9x-g0ox0I0 “Ko-Ko” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3R11NaEiW4 Jimmy Blanton
More songs from the 40’s I have linked 2 more songs from Duke Ellington in the 1940’s. “Cotton Tail” was written in 1940 by Duke Ellington. “Cotton Tail” is a very fast tempo that shows off the amazing skill of his orchestra. “Day Dream” was written by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. I personally think that “Day Dream” shows a little bit of Billy Strayhorn’s classical music influence compared to other Ellington songs. “Cotton Tail” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_EUhvJxDBo “Day Dream” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHXrQoSa_eo
“Black, Brown, and Beige” In 1943 Duke Ellington did a suite at Carnegie Hall called “Black, Brown, and Beige.” It was a fifty minute show meant to explain the history of African-American’s, with music. It was Ellington’s longest composition. I have linked three songs from the suite, divided into two parts. The first link is “Work Song” and “Come Sunday” from the “Black” section of the suite, and the second link is from the “Brown” section it is called “The Blues.” “Work Song” and “Come Sunday” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ki3LZm7fwVc “The Blues” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xUEoqY0LTI&feature=related
The 1950’s With the new R&B artists, and the new style called “Rock and Roll” Duke Ellington’s band found some fierce competition. Jazz wasn’t as popular as it once was and Duke Ellington’s band began to part ways. However, by the late 1950’s his career took off once again. He appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and produced his best selling LP “Ellington at Newport” in 1956. He also did the music score for a movie called “Anatomy of a Murder” in 1959.
This clip shows a small part that Ellington played in the movie “Anatomy of a Murder.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeKp1Mq25kc Here’s a Duke Ellington song from the intro credits to the movie “Anatomy of a Murder” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nt7keunWkt8&feature=fvwrel
The 1960’s In the 1960’s Duke Ellington was nearing the last years of his career. He received numerous awards, and received world wide reknown. He did a few more suites in the last few years of his career including 3 concerts called the “Sacred Concerts.”
The “Sacred Concerts” In 1965-1973 Ellington did 3 concerts known as the sacred concerts. The first concert was done in 1965 and was called “A Concert of Sacred Music.” The second concert was done in 1968 and was called “Second Sacred Concert.” The third concert was done in 1973 and was called “Third Sacred Concert.” I have linked a couple songs from his concerts. A clip from his first concert “A Concert of Sacred Music” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5j_oK2ocK0w This song was played at the second concert although I’m not sure if the clip is actually from the concert. The song is called “Almighty God” and is sung by Alice Babs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GlPZEtmDgs
Awards Duke Ellington won many different awards towards the end of his career. He was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement award in 1966. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969 He won an honorary PhD from the Berkeley College of Music in 1971. He was also put on the back of the District of Columbia quarter in 2009.
Edward Kennedy Ellington died on March 24, 1974, he was 75 years old. He is survived by his son Mercer Ellington.