As well as leading his famed orchestra from the piano chair, he is considered by many to be the greatest jazz composer in history. In fact, he is arguably one of America’s finest composers, regardless of genre.
The Duke Ellington discography contains more than a few all-time classic albums and, while his music is often described as “beyond category”, Ellington’s own compositions have proved incredibly popular with all types of jazz musicians, and they continue to be performed and recorded extensively as part of the standard repertoire.
In this article we look at 10 of Ellington’s greatest songs, and also learn a little more about the life and career of this artistic giant.
Duke Ellington showed musical talent from an early age, although he was not initially convinced that music was his calling.
At 15, whilst working as a soda dispenser, he wrote “Soda Fountain Rag”, despite the fact that he could not yet read music.
Later, having moved to New York and now leading his own band, he secured a residency playing for dancers at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club, which he held between 1926 and 1931.
Ellington and the Cotton Club were at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of culture, art and intellectualism centred around the African American community in Harlem, an area of Manhattan, in the 1920s.
Mood Indigo is a classic song from the band’s early period.
Ellington was always inventive and unconventional when it came to orchestration, and on this one he voiced the generally higher-pitched clarinet at the bottom of a three-horn frontline, with the generally lower-pitched trombone on the top, thus inverting the expected instrumental roles and creating an unusual timbre.
Clarinettist Barney Bigard was the clarinet soloist on the original recording and gets a credit as co-composer. Lyrics were later added by Irving Mills, Duke Ellington’s manager at the time.
It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)
This uptempo dance number perfectly encapsulates the raucous atmosphere of the 1930s Swing era.
The song’s title was apparently a saying of trumpeter Bubber Miley, an early member of his Orchestra, who died of tuberculosis in 1932, the year of the song’s release.
Ellington described it as “the expression of a sentiment which prevailed among jazz musicians at the time.”
One interpretation of this, in the context of the song and its lyrics, might be the idea that jazz can be complex or technically impressive, but it remains essentially worthless without those magical, hard-to-define ingredients: real feeling, attitude and swing.
Ivie Anderson, who sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra for a decade, provided vocals on the original recording.
Ellington would re-record “It Don’t Mean a Thing” a number of times, including versions with both Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.
Caravan is one of Duke Ellington’s most famous songs, and a classic example of the “Spanish tinge” in jazz.
The expression was coined by New Orleans innovator Jelly Roll Morton, and refers to the influence that Afro-Latin and Cuban sounds have had upon jazz since the music’s origins in the melting pot of New Orleans.
Ellington would often take a phrase or melody played by one of his sidemen and flesh it out into a full piece, and trombonist Juan Tizol is credited as co-composer of “Caravan”.
Tizol was from Peurto Rico and brought a Latin influence to the Orchestra, with other compositions of his including “Perdido”, “Jubilesta” and “Conga Brava”.
With its opening dominant chord, which is sustained for 12 bars at a time, “Caravan”, from 1936, arguably anticipates the static harmony of the modal jazz revolution that was to come in the late 1950s and early ‘60s.
Prelude to a Kiss
In 1938 Duke Ellington was a musical celebrity at the height of the swing era.
“Prelude to a Kiss”, which was composed that year, represented something of a stylistic departure for the composer.
He abandoned the happy-go-lucky feeling associated with swing dancing in favour of the complex, chromatic sounds heard here, which perhaps owe something to the meditative feeling of impressionist classical music.
The tune’s bridge (the contrasting middle section) features a particularly spectacular melody, full of wide intervals and juicy note choices.
The lyrics in this section refer to Ellington’s famously eclectic taste, comparing his love to a “Schubert tune with a Gershwin touch”.
Ellington was actually uncomfortable with the word ‘jazz’, and felt that being described as ‘beyond category’ – an expression coined by his colleague Billy Strayhorn – was the greatest compliment that could be paid to his music.
Duke led his Orchestra from 1923 until his death in 1974 and, as you’d expect over such a long period, musicians came and went.
One famous edition of the Orchestra is now known as the Blanton-Webster band, which recorded extensively between approximately 1940-41, and which notably featured tenor saxophone giant Ben Webster and double bassist Jimmy Blanton.
Blanton was hugely influential on his instrument, pioneering the bass as a soloing instrument, amongst various other innovations, but he died of tuberculosis in 1942, aged just 23.
“Cotton Tail” is an uptempo number that was recorded in 1940.
Based on the chord sequence to “I Got Rhythm” by George Gershwin, it features a classic two-chorus tenor solo from Webster as well as a famous soli (a featured ensemble section written in rhythmic unison for a section of a big band) from all of the saxophones.
Like a number of pieces on this list, Cotton Tail started life as an instrumental jazz tune before later being turned into a song.
Ellington wrote lyrics of his own, before a new set was written for a 1960 version by the vocal group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.
C Jam Blues
Duke Ellington’s music was always steeped in blues feeling, but he also wrote a number of actual 12-bar blues tunes.
The most famous of these is “C Jam Blues”.
Its incredibly simple melody makes it ideal for beginner musicians and jam session settings: in its most basic form, it only contains two notes – C and G. The original, riff-based tune was probably thought-up by clarinettist Barney Bigard.
In the late 1950s simple lyrics were added to turn it into a song entitled “Duke’s Place”.
Ellington wrote an ambitious three-part suite called Black, Brown and Beige – the sort of extended work usually tackled by classical, rather than jazz, composers – for his first concert at New York’s hallowed Carnegie Hall in January 1943. He described it as “a parallel to the history of the Negro in America.”
“Come Sunday”, a beautiful, spiritual-style ballad, is one of the key themes of the piece’s first movement.
After the Carnegie Hall performance received negative reviews, Ellington reworked the suite and re-recorded much of the material on a 1958 album of the same name featuring Mahalia Jackson, civil rights activist and ‘the Queen of Gospel’.
The song is also reprised, at various tempos, throughout the 1965 album Concert of Sacred Music, which Ellington described as “the most important thing I have ever done”.
The deeply religious lyrics implore:
“God of love, please look down and see my people through”
“Satin Doll” was written with Billy Strayhorn, who was Ellington’s close collaborator for almost 30 years.
Strayhorn was classically trained and provided lyrics, compositions, arrangements and occasional piano for the Orchestra.
In fact, the informal and intimate nature of their working relationship meant that it was not always clear who wrote what, and it has been suggested that Strayhorn did not always receive proper credit for his work.
He did, however, compose a number of the Duke Ellington band’s best-loved songs, including “Chelsea Bridge” and “Take the ‘A’ Train”, which was the Orchestra’s theme tune.
The original 1953 recording of “Satin Doll”, which features a slightly angular piano interlude from Ellington himself, is an instrumental number; later the famous American Songbook lyricist Johnny Mercer added words.
Ellington used the tune as the closing number on most of his concerts, and described Strayhorn as “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”.
I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)
Ellington was known for writing pieces with particular members of his band in mind, to suit their respective sounds and personalities.
This song of unrequited love was long associated with saxophonist Johnny Hodges, whose vibrato-laden lead alto tone is a classic sound in big band jazz.
Hodges played a short solo feature on the original recording with the Blanton-Webster edition of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, on which Ivie Anderson provided the vocal, and the alto saxophone player takes centre stage in heartbreaking fashion on the live instrumental version from the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival.
This Newport Jazz Festival recording is considered one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, and also includes the legendary 27-chorus blues solo by tenor player Paul Gonsalves on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”.
Duke Ellington wrote a number of songs especially for Hodges, who was nicknamed “Rabbit” or sometimes “Jeep”, including “Jeep’s Blues” and “Hodge Podge”. When the alto player died, Ellington said:
“Never the world’s most highly animated showman or greatest stage personality, but a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes—this was Johnny Hodges. This is Johnny Hodges.”
Never No Lament (Don’t Get Around Much Anymore)
“Never No Lament” was recorded as an instrumental number in 1940, but songwriter Bob Russell put lyrics to it two years later and it is now more commonly known as “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”.
Russell came up with words for a number of Ellington tunes from this period, and his lyric here is from the perspective of a rejected lover who prefers to stay at home rather than venture out and be reminded of happier days.
The song features on Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, which sees the great singer accompanied by Duke and the Orchestra, and has also been recorded by everyone from The Ink Spots to Willie Nelson, George Shearing to Paul McCartney.
Thanks for checking out this countdown of 10 of the best Duke Ellington songs of all time.
Of course, being such a prolific composer, there are many more out the that you can discover and we’d recommended checking out this in-depth biography of Duke Ellington as a next step or jumping right to our deep dive into his classic ballad In A Sentimental Mood.
If you’re looking for more suggestions on great tunes, you might like this round up of some of the most famous jazz songs in history.
You can find that, and all our other articles on the topic, via our Discover Jazz Music page.
Sam Braysher is an alto saxophonist based in London. His debut album was a critically acclaimed duo recording with New York pianist Michael Kanan. A new trio album, with bassist Tom Farmer and drummer Jorge Rossy, is due for release soon.