Duke Ellington


The child of loving and relatively well-to-do African-American parents, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born on April 29, 1899, in Washington, D.C. — not only the capital of the United States but, at that time, home to the largest and best-educated black population in the country. As he became a teenaged bandleader, he learned to appreciate the unique aspects of every musician in his group, and he was later able to reconcile these differences and utilize them in an innovative and completely democratic way. He inspired confidence in his musicians. After building a successful dance band business in Washington, he moved to New York City in 1923.

The Duke cultivated exotic sounds in his orchestra: an emphasis on contrast between the low- and high-pitched instruments, a prominent use of minor keys and blues tonalities, a style he called jungle music, and unusual effects drawn out or encouraged from his instrumentalists and vocalists.

By the late 1920s, Ellington’s musicians had all developed into distinctive soloists. Among the great players who worked with Ellington over the years were saxophonists Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, and Ben Webster; clarinetists Barney Bigard and Jimmy Hamilton; trumpeters Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, and Ray Nance; trombonists Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton and Lawrence Brown; bassist Jimmy Blanton; and drummer Sam Woodyard. That array of talent remains awe-inspiring and will continue to influence future generations of jazz musicians. The maestro also easily participated with, and challenged, such younger innovators of the 1960s as bassist Charles Mingus and saxophonist John Coltrane.

Perhaps more consequential was "Mood Indigo" which became one of the first pieces written by a jazz composer to be accepted by the public as a popular song. From this point on, Ellington developed into a major contributor to the American popular-song repertoire, writing such other hit tunes as "In a Sentimental Mood," "Prelude to a Kiss," "Sophisticated Lady," "Solitude," and "Satin Doll." However, the piece most people associate with Duke Ellington, "Take the ‘A’ Train," was written by pianist-composer Billy Strayhorn, who joined Ellington in 1939 and became his closest associate. Saddened but not defeated by Strayhorn’s death in 1967, the Duke continued to compose, play, and tour with his world-famous orchestra until his own death on May 24, 1974.

Of the first generation of jazz musicians, Ellington and Louis Armstrong were the most responsible for moving jazz from a form of entertainment to a form of artistic expression. Over six decades, from the 1920s to the 1970s, Ellington continually expanded his scope and range of expression, for he was somewhat of an anomaly in the jazz world: a composer.


Andrew Homzy

Excerpted from Duke Ellington’s Finest Hour