Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974) was an American composer, pianist, and leader of a jazz orchestra, which he led from 1923 until his death over a career spanning more than fifty years.
Born in Washington, D.C., Ellington was based in New York City from the mid-1920s onward and gained a national profile through his orchestra's appearances at the Cotton Club in Harlem. In the 1930s, his orchestra toured in Europe. Although widely considered to have been a pivotal figure in the history of jazz, Ellington embraced the phrase "beyond category" as a liberating principle and referred to his music as part of the more general category of American Music rather than to a musical genre such as jazz.
Some of the jazz musicians who were members of Ellington's orchestra, such as saxophonist Johnny Hodges, are considered to be among the best players in the idiom. Ellington melded them into the best-known orchestral unit in the history of jazz. Some members stayed with the orchestra for several decades. A master at writing miniatures for the three-minute 78 rpm recording format, Ellington wrote more than one thousand compositions; his extensive body of work is the largest recorded personal jazz legacy, with many of his pieces having become standards. Ellington also recorded songs written by his bandsmen, for example Juan Tizol's "Caravan", and "Perdido", which brought a Spanish tinge to big band jazz. In the early 1940s, Ellington began a nearly thirty-year collaboration with composer-arranger-pianist Billy Strayhorn, whom he called his writing and arranging companion. With Strayhorn, he composed many extended compositions, or suites, as well as additional short pieces. Following an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, in July 1956, Ellington and his orchestra enjoyed a major revival and embarked on world tours. Ellington recorded for most American record companies of his era, performed in several films, scored several, and composed a handful of stage musicals.
Due to his inventive use of the orchestra, or big band, and thanks to his eloquence and charisma, Ellington elevated jazz to an art form. His reputation continued to rise after he died, and he was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize Special Award for music in 1999.
Ellington was born on April 29, 1899, to James Edward Ellington and Daisy (Kennedy) Ellington in Washington, D.C. Both his parents were pianists. Daisy primarily played parlor songs and James preferred operatic arias. They lived with his maternal grandparents at 2129 Ida Place (now Ward Place), NW, in the West End neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Duke's father was born in Lincolnton, North Carolina, on April 15, 1879, and moved to Washington, D.C. in 1886 with his parents. Daisy Kennedy was born in Washington, D.C., on January 4, 1879, the daughter of a former American slave. James Ellington made blueprints for the United States Navy. When Ellington was a child, his family showed racial pride and support in their home, as did many other families. African Americans in D.C. worked to protect their children from the era's Jim Crow laws.
At the age of seven, Ellington began taking piano lessons from Marietta Clinkscales. Daisy surrounded her son with dignified women to reinforce his manners and teach him to live elegantly. Ellington's childhood friends noticed that his casual, offhand manner, his easy grace, and his dapper dress gave him the bearing of a young nobleman, and began calling him "Duke." Ellington credited his friend Edgar McEntree for the nickname. "I think he felt that in order for me to be eligible for his constant companionship, I should have a title. So he called me Duke."
Though Ellington took piano lessons, he was more interested in baseball. "President Roosevelt (Teddy) would come by on his horse sometimes, and stop and watch us play", he recalled. Ellington went to Armstrong Technical High School in Washington, D.C. He gained his first job selling peanuts at Washington Senators baseball games.
In the summer of 1914, while working as a soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Café, Ellington wrote his first composition, "Soda Fountain Rag" (also known as the "Poodle Dog Rag"). He created the piece by ear, as he had not yet learned to read and write music. "I would play the 'Soda Fountain Rag' as a one-step, two-step, waltz, tango, and fox trot", Ellington recalled. "Listeners never knew it was the same piece. I was established as having my own repertoire." In his autobiography, Music is my Mistress (1973), Ellington wrote that he missed more lessons than he attended, feeling at the time that playing the piano was not his talent.
Ellington started sneaking into Frank Holiday's Poolroom at the age of fourteen. Hearing the poolroom pianists play ignited Ellington's love for the instrument, and he began to take his piano studies seriously. Among the many piano players he listened to were Doc Perry, Lester Dishman, Louis Brown, Turner Layton, Gertie Wells, Clarence Bowser, Sticky Mack, Blind Johnny, Cliff Jackson, Claude Hopkins, Phil Wurd, Caroline Thornton, Luckey Roberts, Eubie Blake, Joe Rochester, and Harvey Brooks.
Ellington began listening to, watching, and imitating ragtime pianists, not only in Washington, D.C., but in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, where he vacationed with his mother during the summer months. He would sometimes hear strange music played by those who could not afford much sheet music, so for variations, they played the sheets upside down. Henry Lee Grant, a Dunbar High School music teacher, gave him private lessons in harmony. With the additional guidance of Washington pianist and band leader Oliver "Doc" Perry, Ellington learned to read sheet music, project a professional style, and improve his technique. Ellington was also inspired by his first encounters with stride pianists James P. Johnson and Luckey Roberts. Later in New York he took advice from Will Marion Cook, Fats Waller, and Sidney Bechet. Ellington started to play gigs in cafés and clubs in and around Washington, D.C. His attachment to music was so strong that in 1916 he turned down an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Three months before graduating he dropped out of Armstrong Manual Training School, where he was studying commercial art.
Working as a freelance sign-painter from 1917, Ellington began assembling groups to play for dances. In 1919 he met drummer Sonny Greer from New Jersey, who encouraged Ellington's ambition to become a professional musician. Ellington built his music business through his day job: when a customer asked him to make a sign for a dance or party, he would ask if they had musical entertainment; if not, Ellington would offer to play for the occasion. He also had a messenger job with the U.S. Navy and State departments, where he made a wide range of contacts. Ellington moved out of his parents' home and bought his own as he became a successful pianist. At first, he played in other ensembles, and in late 1917 formed his first group, "The Duke's Serenaders" ("Colored Syncopators", his telephone directory advertising proclaimed). He was also the group's booking agent. His first play date was at the True Reformer's Hall, where he took home 75 cents.
Ellington played throughout the Washington, D.C. area and into Virginia for private society balls and embassy parties. The band included childhood friend Otto Hardwick, who began playing the string bass, then moved to C-melody sax and finally settled on alto saxophone; Arthur Whetsol on trumpet; Elmer Snowden on banjo; and Sonny Greer on drums. The band thrived, performing for both African-American and white audiences, a rarity in the segregated society of the day.