Duke Ellington

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Ellington, Duke

(Edward Kennedy Ellington), 1899–1974, American jazz musician and composer, b. Washington, D.C. Ellington made his first professional appearance as a jazz pianist in 1916. By 1918 he had formed a band, and after appearances in nightclubs in Harlem he became one of the most famous figures in American jazz. Ellington's orchestra played compositions and arrangements, some by hime alone, many by or in collaboration with Billy StrayhornStrayhorn, Billy
(William Thomas Strayhorn), 1915–67, African-American jazz composer, arranger, lyricist, and pianist, b. Dayton, Ohio. Classically trained, he was drawn to jazz, and early in his career composed a number of songs.
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, and others written by Ellington and other members of his band (but often not credited to them). He achieved a fine unity of style, based in blues, but elegant and tonal, and made many innovations in the jazz idiom. Many instrumental virtuosos worked closely with Ellington for long periods of time. Among his best-known short works are "Mood Indigo," "Solitude," and "Sophisticated Lady." He also wrote jazz works of complex orchestration and ambitious scope for concert presentation, notably Creole Rhapsody (1932), Black, Brown and Beige (1943), Liberian Suite (1947), Harlem (1951), and Night Creatures (1955), and composed religious music, including three sacred concerts (1965, 1968, and 1973). Ellington made many tours of Europe, appeared in numerous jazz festivals and several films, and made hundreds of recordings. In 1969 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


See his memoir, Music Is My Mistress (1973); M. Tucker, ed., The Duke Ellington Reader (1993); M. Ellington (his son) and S. Dance, Duke Ellington in Person (1978); biographies by B. Ulanov (1946, repr. 1976), J. L. Collier (1989), M. Tucker (1991), J. E. Hass (1993), A. H. Lawrence (2001), and T. Teachout (2013); S. Dance, The World of Duke Ellington (1970); H. G. Cohen, Duke Ellington's America (2010).

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Ellington, (Edward Kennedy) Duke

(1899–1974) composer, orchestra conductor, jazz musician; born in Washington, D.C. Raised in a moderately well-to-do family, his father being a White House butler and later a blueprint-maker for the U.S. Navy, he studied piano and painting from age six and acquired his nickname from a boyhood friend. He began subbing for ragtime pianist Lester Dishman at a Washington cafe in 1914, and while there he wrote his first composition, "Soda Fountain Rag." He won a poster design contest sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1917; this prompted him to leave high school before graduation to operate his own sign-painting business, but a year later he declined a scholarship from the Pratt Institute (Brooklyn) and devoted himself exclusively to music. He first established his name in Washington by supplying bands for parties and dances and as a sideman in others' bands. In 1923 he and hometown associates Sonny Greer and Otto Hardwick moved to New York City and began working as "the Washingtonians." Ellington assumed leadership of the ensemble, which in 1924 made its first recordings and began a three-year residency at a Broadway speakeasy. In 1925 he wrote the score for the Chocolate Kiddies, a revue that ran for two years in Germany. He also began to attract significant sidemen to his band, including such colorful, blues-oriented players as Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams; they helped form Ellington's signature style and propel his output as a composer. In December 1927 the Duke Ellington Orchestra made its decisive opening at the Cotton Club, the showplace of Harlem speakeasies; his composing flourished there and he remained in residency until 1932. By this time, through radio broadcasts and many recordings for U.S., English, and French labels, he was internationally renowned as the foremost jazz composer and bandleader. In 1930 he performed with his orchestra in the Amos and Andy movie, Check and Double Check, the first of many such movie appearances. In 1933 he led his 14-piece band on its first tour of England and Europe, and for the next 40 years he maintained a near-constant touring schedule, broken only by perennial residencies at clubs in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, and Paris. Between 1930 and 1942, Ellington was at his most creative, composing a series of pieces that highlighted the distinct musical personalities of his loyal sidemen. In 1938 he hired composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn, an essential collaborator whose 1941 composition "Take the "A' Train" served thereafter as the band's theme. During this period Ellington also produced several of his most enduring works, including "Mood Indigo," "Sophisticated Lady," "In a Sentimental Mood," and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." In 1943 he introduced his celebrated extended work, Black, Brown, and Beige, at Carnegie Hall, where he premiered other ambitious works at annual concerts through 1948. During the early 1950s Ellington was virtually alone among jazz orchestra leaders in keeping his band intact, though he suffered several key personnel changes and a reduction in the quality of his bookings. In 1955 Johnny Hodges rejoined the band after a four-year absence and during the next five years Ellington's popularity underwent a dramatic renewal, encouraged by a successful appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, the recording of which became his biggest-selling album. In 1959 his soundtrack for Anatomy of a Murder was the first commissioned from an African-American composer for a major Hollywood movie. His overseas tours in the 1960s and 1970s inspired several large-scale suites, and in his final decade he also wrote liturgical music for concerts he presented in cathedrals in the U.S.A., England, and Germany. Increasingly recognized as a major American composer, he received numerous honorary degrees and awards after 1963, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969. In 1971 he became the first jazz musician inducted into the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm, Sweden. His autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, was published in 1973. He led his band until a couple of months before his death from cancer, when it was taken over by his son, Mercer Ellington.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.