Duke Ellington – The Life & Music of a Jazz Hero

Born April 29, 1899 in Washington D.C., pianist, composer and bandleader Duke Ellington is one of the most important figures in jazz history. In this biography, jazz historian and award-winning author Scott Yanow takes an in-depth look at the life and career of the iconic figure.

Duke Ellington’s musical accomplishments and innovations are so numerous that they can be difficult to comprehend much less fully list. They fall into four areas: bandleader, composer, arranger, and pianist.

Ellington led his orchestra non-stop for 50 years (1924-74). One can pick out any year from that period, whether it is 1927, 1947 or 1967, and his big band ranks with the top five in the world.

As a composer, he wrote thousands of pieces, ranging from three-minute classics to hour-long suites. Scores of his originals became jazz standards, and he ranked with the other masters of the Great American Songbook such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. But unlike those composers, Ellington wrote his works not by sitting at home by a piano but while traveling on the road with his orchestra.

As an arranger, Ellington mixed together virtuosos with primitive players, all of whom had personal and sometimes quirky sounds that he blended together. Not content to just write one arrangement for a piece, if the song remained in his repertoire for long, chances are that he would have rearranged it several times through the years, depending on who was in his band.

Ellington was among the very first to write music specifically for the players in his orchestra and in his own way. Rather than breaking the rules of conventional arranging, he simply ignored them and created the music that best fit his ideas and the sounds of his sidemen.

And as a pianist, Ellington (along with Mary Lou Williams) was virtually the only stride pianist of the 1920s who continually modernized his style while never losing sight of his roots. In the 1960s and early ‘70s, he could often sound like a young modern jazz pianist. He influenced such later giants as Thelonious Monk, Randy Weston, Abdullah Ibrahim and even Cecil Taylor among many others.

Duke Ellington did all of this while often giving one the impression that he never worked all that hard, as if all he did was simply smile while leading his band at performances.

Early Life & Career

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born April 29, 1899 in Washington D.C. to a middle-class African-American family.

While he had some piano lessons when he was seven, he did not take the music seriously until he was a teenager. Attracted to the glamorous life that musicians (especially older pianists) seemed to have, he taught himself the piano by watching and emulating his musical heroes. Willie “The Lion” Smith became an influence and he later learned James P. Johnson’s complex piano showcases by getting some of his piano rolls and playing them at half speed.

By 1914 Ellington was playing occasional jobs and that year he composed his first two pieces: “Soda Fountain Rag” and “What You Going To Do When The Bed Breaks Down?”

Ellington, who gained the lifelong title of ‘Duke’ due to his distinguished and classy nature, was also skilled as an artist. But while he was offered an art scholarship to Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, he decided that playing music was what he really wanted out of life.

During World War I. he became expert at putting together bands and getting them jobs in the Washington D.C. area. He took out a large ad in the classified pages of the phone book and soon had so many jobs that he actually led several bands simultaneously, making appearances for two or three songs apiece with each of his bands on a given night.

Despite his lucrative work in Washington D.C., Duke was attracted by the glamour of New York.

In 1923 he went up North to play with clarinetist Wilbur Sweatman’s septet in a vaudeville show. That job soon ended and, after a few months of struggling, he was out of money and had to return to home.

But the following year he had better luck. He returned to New York and became part of banjoist Elmer Snowden’s Washingtonians. A dispute over money in Feb. 1924 resulted in Snowden leaving and Duke Ellington becoming the group’s leader.

While working at the Hollywood Club, in Nov. 1924, Duke Ellington and the Washingtonians made their first recordings, “Choo Choo” and “Rainy Nights.” With cornetist Bubber Miley and trombonist Charlie Irvis as the main voices, Ellington’s band already had its own musical personality. Oddly enough, Duke’s next four recording sessions during 1925-26 were quite erratic due to utilizing expanded groups with substitute players.

In the meantime, the Hollywood Club was closed for a few months after a fire before reopening as the Club Kentucky, remaining Ellington’s main musical home into 1927.

The great soprano-saxophonist Sidney Bechet was with the Washingtonians for a period in 1925 (unfortunately no recordings resulted). That year, Ellington and lyricist Jo Trent wrote the entire score for the revue Chocolate Kiddies in one night. While none of the songs caught on, Sam Wooding’s Orchestra toured Europe for two years playing some of Ellington’s music.

In Nov. 1926, the band, now known as the Duke Ellington Orchestra, finally regained and built upon its original identity on their recordings.

Cornetist Bubber Miley and trombonist Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton were masters at utilizing a variety of mutes to distort their tones, leading to the band becoming known for its “jungle music.”

Irving Mills became the orchestra’s manager, securing many recording dates for Ellington who sometimes recorded under a pseudonym so the labels would not get angry. It was not unusual for Duke to record the same song for three different companies, changing the arrangement a bit each time.

Duke Ellington & The Cotton Club

On December 4, 1927, Irving Mills helped secure the band an audition for a prized spot in the Cotton Club which they won.

That was the biggest break of Duke Ellington’s career.

Not only was his orchestra performing nightly at the popular club, but the regular radio broadcasts led to the band soon being accurately billed as “Duke Ellington’s Famous Orchestra.”

With Miley (who in Jan. 1929 was succeeded by trumpeter Cootie Williams), Tricky Sam Nanton, trombonist Lawrence Brown, clarinetist Barney Bigard, altoist Johnny Hodges, and baritonist Harry Carney as the key horn players (each had very distinctive sounds) and a modern and versatile rhythm section with Ellington, bassist Wellman Braud and drummer Sonny Greer, the Duke Ellington Orchestra was at the top of its field by 1928-29, a position it would hold for many decades.

Even with its unique sound and many soloists, the greatest factor in the Ellington Orchestra’s success was its leader’s writing.

His arrangements brought out the best in his sidemen, and such compositions as the band’s theme song “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” “Black And Tan Fantasy,” “The Mooche,” “Rockin’ In Rhythm,” “Mood Indigo,” and “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” allowed his band not only to survive the worst years of the Depression but made Duke into a household name by the early 1930s.

The Duke Ellington Orchestra left the Cotton Club in 1931 (Cab Calloway was their successor) and mostly lived on the road for the next four decades.

The Swing Era

The rise of the swing era, which started in 1935, resulted in many other big bands being formed, but Ellington was already considered a musical genius who was above any real competition.

His band’s personnel (which added cornetist Rex Stewart and singer Ivie Anderson) was remarkably stable and such new Ellington standards as “Sophisticated Lady,” “Drop Me Off In Harlem,” “Solitude,” “In A Sentimental Mood,” “Caravan” (written by Ellington’s valve trombonist Juan Tizol), “Echoes Of Harlem,” “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart,” and “Prelude To A Kiss” were not only played by Duke’s orchestra but by a countless number of other performers. Ellington and his men performed nonstop in clubs and various venues, were regulars on the radio, and also appeared in occasional movies.

Many historians consider the Duke Ellington Orchestra of 1939-42 to be his finest although all of his bands were actually comparable.

Tenor-saxophonist Ben Webster, the innovative bassist Jimmy Blanton, and cornetist-violinist-singer Ray Nance (who succeeded Cootie Williams) were important new voices. Most significant was the addition of composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn who would be a major part of the Ellington family during 1939-67.

A brilliant composer whose style was similar to Ellington’s, Strayhorn collaborated closely with Duke on many works, so close in fact that at times it was forgotten who had written what.

Strayhorn, who had already composed “Lush Life” as a teenager, contributed Ellington’s new theme song “Take The ‘A’ Train,” and wrote such pieces as “Raincheck,” “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “Something To Live For” and “Passion Flower.”

Among the other classic recordings made by the Ellington Orchestra during this period were Tizol’s “Perdido,” “C Jam Blues,” “Cotton Tail,” “All Too Soon,” “I Got It Bad,” and “In A Mellotone.”

The 1940s & Carnegie Hall

While the onset of World War II. made traveling difficult for big bands, Ellington continued working including appearing with his band in the Los Angeles civil rights play Jump For Joy and at special Carnegie Hall concerts.

His first appearance at Carnegie Hall, on Jan. 23, 1943, was highlighted by his nearly hour-long suite Black, Brown and Beige (which included “Come Sunday”). Other Carnegie Hall concerts found him introducing “The Perfume Suite,’ “The Liberian Suite” and “The Tattooed Bride.”

While the post-war years, which found most of the swing era big bands breaking up, had its difficulties, and Ellington’s band had more turnover than previously (among his new sidemen were clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton, altoist Russell Procope, the remarkable high-note trumpeter Cat Anderson, tenor-saxophonist Al Sears, trombonists Tyree Glenn and Quentin Jackson, and singer Al Hibbler), it retained its high quality.

New hits such as “Don’t Get Around Anymore,” “I’m Beginning To See The Light,” and “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be,” made it possible for Ellington keep meeting his payroll. He modernized his playing and writing style (on “A Clothed Woman” he even flirted with atonality) while still playing enough of his standards to satisfy audiences.

Post-war Ellington

The early 1950s were the most difficult time for the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

The three-minute hits (the last one was 1953’s “Satin Doll”) had stopped and, while Ellington’s suites (which included “Harlem”) were prestigious, they were not major sellers.

Television made it difficult for all big bands to continue. And in 1951, altoist Johnny Hodges went out on his own, taking trombonist Lawrence Brown and drummer Sonny Greer with him.

But Ellington was able to fight back. In what was dubbed “the great James robbery,” he persuaded drummer Louis Bellson, altoist Willie Smith, and his former valve trombonist Juan Tizol to leave the Harry James Band and join his for a year.

Bellson in particular was a major asset who added some new excitement to the orchestra. And with such relatively modern soloists as trumpeter Clark Terry, trombonist Britt Woodman, clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton and tenor-saxophonist Paul Gonsalves interacting with the Ellington veterans (including Harry Carney who was with Ellington for 47 years), Duke’s band was still a mighty force during this low-profile period.

The Duke Ellington Renaissance

In 1955 it was a happy event when Johnny Hodges rejoined Ellington.

And then at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, when Duke turned Paul Gonsalves loose for a 27-chorus tenor solo during “Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue,” it not only made headlines but resulted in a complete renaissance for Duke Ellington. Never again would anyone seriously suggest to him that he should break up his orchestra and live off of his royalties.

Now entering his sixties, Duke Ellington continued circling the world with his orchestra and his activities accelerated.

He wrote the soundtracks for Anatomy Of A Murder (appearing in one scene) and Paris Blues, and made recordings as a guest pianist with Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, the John Coltrane Quartet, a trio with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, and with a combination of his big band and the Count Basie Orchestra. And he worked with Billy Strayhorn on such works as “Such Sweet Thunder,” an adaptation of the “Nutcracker Suite,” and “Suite Thursday.”

Strayhorn’s death in 1967 can be seen as the beginning of the end for Ellington but he had another seven years of activities to go.

Having already presented his first Sacred Concert in 1965, he composed and performed two other ones. He wrote the Far East Suite (with Strayhorn who contributed “Isfahan”), the Latin American Suite, Afro-Eurasian Eclipse and New Orleans Suite.

With such sidemen as a returned Cootie Williams, tenor-saxophonist Harold Ashby, and Norris Turney on alto and flute, he celebrated his 70th birthday in 1969 at a special concert held at the White House

However the death of Johnny Hodges in 1970 was a major blow and during his remaining four years, several of Ellington’s longtime sidemen either departed or left. He emphasized his piano playing more, recorded some combo records (including a quartet date with guitarist Joe Pass), and added a few new worthy sidemen such as altoist Harold Minerve and trumpeter Barry Lee Hall.

Duke Ellington’s Death & Legacy

Duke Ellington’s health gradually declined from lung cancer and his last appearance with his orchestra was in March 1974.

A full issue of Downbeat was dedicated to his 75th birthday and was filled with praise from all of the top players in jazz. By then Ellington, who enjoyed reading the issue, was in the hospital. He passed away on May 24, 1974.

More than 47 years after his death, the gap left by Duke Ellington’s death is still felt. He is irreplaceable but fortunately hundreds of his recordings are readily available for jazz and music lovers to discover, explore, and cherish. His musical legacy will last forever.

Looking for more about the legendary jazz musician that is Duke Ellington?

Check out our pick of 10 of his most famous songs, or his place in the pantheon of best jazz composers of all time. 

We also collated our pick of some of the best Duke Ellington tribute albums, which see his compositions played by some of the most famous jazz musicians of all time.

3 thoughts on “Duke Ellington – The Life & Music of a Jazz Hero”

  1. This is an excellent retrospective on the life and enduring legacy of the iconic Duke Ellington.

    Well done.

    And much appreciated,

  2. Mr. Edward K. “ Duke” Ellington’s collaborative writing, conducting, and playing with the many geniuses inside the Duke Ellington Orchestra is a superlative force in every genre of great music forever. Ellington’s influence has allowed today’s music writers to continue the words of truth.


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