Duke Ellington: A Jazz Legend
Duke Ellington dominated the Jazz and Big Band era with hit after hit. This polite, music loving man changed the way the world looked at Jazz.
Duke Ellington, then known as Edward Kennedy Ellington, was born on April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C. His parents, Daisy and James, worked hard to instill a strong sense of committment and middle class manners into their son. Table manners and "please" and "thank yous" were a big part of young Duke's life and of great importance to his parents. It is said that the Duke practiced table manners even as a baby. Music critics say that, due to his overwhelming sense of learned graciousness and outstanding talent, Duke became one of the most respected Jazz musicians of all time.
Young Edward Ellington began piano lessons when he was just seven years old, studying under Oliver "Doc" Perry and Louis Brown, who would give him the nickname "Duke." Duke worked on his fingering by slowing down piano rolls of the great James P. Johnson. From the age of seven to seventeen, Edward would diligently pluck away at the piano even though he aspired to become a professional baseball player. His love of baseball would lead the sixteen year old Duke to his very first job: selling peanuts at Washington Senators baseball games.
Duke began to lean toward the arts as he breezed through his teens. Three months before he was scheduled to graduate high school, Duke dropped out of school and began performing at local clubs and cafes, completely dedicating himself to his love of Jazz. He was seventeen years old.
In 1917, at the age of eighteen, Duke took out a large ad in the yellow pages of the telephone directory, advertising his musical ability. The response was overwhelming, and soon Duke was leading several bands. He would write his very first song, "Soda Fountain Rag" later that same year.
In 1922, Duke Ellington began playing in New York with Wilbur Sweatman. The band would be largely unsuccessful, and a defeated Duke bounced unhappily from band to band, still hoping to piece together the perfect string of performers. The following year, it would all come together, as Duke rounded up Sonny Greer, Otto Hardwicke and Arthur Whetsol and began performing under the name the Washingtonians. The Washingtonians were a hit, playing regularly to sold old crowds at the Hollywood Club in Manhattan (later renamed the Kentucky Club). Bubber Miley, known for his trumpet mastery and plunger mute, joined the Washingtonians and soon the band had a style all its own. The press and music critics around the world fell in love with what is now labeled, "the jungle sound."
The Washingtonians recorded their first albums, "Choo Choo" and "Rainy Nights" in 1924. The Duke Ellington Orchestra would be born out of the albums, which contained the hits "East St. Louis Toodleoo" and "Birmingham Breakdown." Wherever the band went, the orchestra would go, as well, adding to an already impressive, one-of-a-kind sound.
It was in 1927 that the Duke Ellington Orchestra first hit the big time by sheer stroke of luck. King Oliver had turned down a job at the Cotton Club and Ellington's band was called to fill in. The classics "Black and Tan Rantasy" and "Creole Love Call" would push Duke and his fellow musicians into the spotlight, where they would remain for the next fifty years, making the now world famous "Ellington swing" one of the most popular sounds in America.
Duke left the Cotton Club in 1931 and began touring the world, playing for such famous audiences as President Nixon and Queen Elizabeth II. During this time, Duke wrote "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing," which would define the entire decade. Though the world had tired of the big band sound by this time, Ellington managed to stay strong and on top of the charts by adding "be bop" into his routine.
Still going strong in the 1940's, Duke gave his first performance in Carnegie Hall in 1943, debuting his fifty minute work, "Brown and Beige." A largely accepted musician at this time, it seemed Duke could do no wrong. As other musicians pushed to put big band back on the charts, Duke adapted his music to fit the times, and the audiences went wild.
"Don't Get Around Much Anymore" became an instant hit in the 1960's and Duke, now in his late fifties, began to sit in with the Louis Armstrong All Stars, the John Coltrane Quartet, Count Basie and Coleman Hawkins. He was an icon, whether playing solo or with a group. Ellington's band became the model for longevity for any band of its time, never going a year without a show stopping, chart placing appearance. As the old greats passed away and their music faded with time, Duke's sound stayed strong until 1974. Stricken with cancer, Duke Ellington died on May 24, 1974.
Today, The Duke Ellington Jazz Society (first formed in 1959) strives to promote the continued appreciation of Duke and his music. Frequent concerts, newsletters and promotional appearances by Jazz legends have helped to keep Duke and his "jungle sound" alive.