12 facts about Duke Ellington

One of the most influential pianists and composers in jazz, Duke Ellington would lead his band for nearly fifty years. His contribution to the music is immeasurable from his instantly recognisable style at the piano, to his eye for talent and ability to attract some of the leading soloists of the day to play in his big band. Ellington would famously write pieces for specific members of the band with their sound and style in mind.

Duke’s music was all encompassing from his ‘jungle style’ of the 1920s through to his suites, and late in his career his Sacred Concerts. Ellington’s music has stood the test of time, and nearly fifty years after his death is a cornerstone of the music, and like Miles Davis and Charles Mingus was one of the first jazz musicians to prove that it was possible to embrace change and continue to develop and grow artistically over a long career.

Below are twelve facts about Duke Ellington that help define the man and his music.

  1. Born Edward Kennedy Ellington on April 29, 1899 he was brought up by his mother Daisy who would introduce him to dignified women and teach him good manners and elegance. Ellington was always smartly dressed and well spoken, and was given the nickname ‘Duke’ due his regal mannerisms by his school friend Edgar McEntee.

  2. Both of Duke’s parents played piano and the young Ellington began taking piano lessons from the age of seven. His first piano teacher was called Marietta Clinkscales.

  3. Ellington wrote his first composition in 1914 while still a teenager and working as soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Café. The song, ‘Soda Fountain Rag’ sometimes known as ‘Poodle Dog Rag’. As he was unable to read or write musical notation the piece was created by ear. Ellington never recorded this song.

  4. Duke assembled hid first ‘big band’ in 1927 when in accepting an invitation to perform regularly at the Cotton Club in Harlem, whereby he had to expand his band from six to eleven musicians.

  5. Through his engagement at the Cotton Club with regular radio broadcasts and recording opportunities, Ellington became a master at writing three minute miniatures. The ideal length for both radio and 78rpm records.

  6. During his lifetime, Ellington is credited with having written more than 2000 compositions.

  7. Many members of Duke’s orchestra would stay for long periods of time, but none longer than baritone saxophonist Harry Carney. Joining in 1927 at the age of seventeen, Carney would remain with Ellington until his death on May 24, 1974. At the time of Ellington’s death Carney said that “Without Duke I have nothing to live for”. Harry Carney died four months later.

  8. Duke Ellington was awarded a total of nine Grammys between 1959 and his death in 1974. A further three Grammys were awarded posthumously. 

  9. In 1939 composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn joined Ellington’s band. Between them Duke and Strayhorn wrote prolifically for the band. Duje would often joke that he and Strayhorn were so in tune with each other that he could not always tell who had written what. This writing partnership would continue from 1939 until Strayhorn’s death on May 31, 1967.

  10. In 2009 as a tribute to Duke the mayor of New York City, Michael R Bloomberg declared April 29 as Duke Ellington Day.

  11. Ellington appeared at the Whitehouse at the invitation of Richard Nixen. The invitation was extended to Duke to celebrate his 70th birthday.

  12. At the age of 66 Ellington shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1965. Unfortunately, no prize was actually awarded that year prompting Duke to joke that “Fate doesn’t want me to be famous too young”. He was however, to commemorate the centenary of his birth, posthumously award a special Pulitzer Prize in 1999 acknowledging his contribution to jazz. 

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