Without question, the most significant composer in the history of jazz music was Duke Ellington, the elegant composer, arranger, pianist and bandleader who gave the American songbook such stellar material as "Mood Indigo," "Take the 'A' Train," "It Don't Mean a Thing (If it Ain't Got that Swing)," "Satin Doll" and countless other enduring classics. Ellington was revered for both his versatility, which allowed him to compose all manner of music - from hot swing jazz to classical-style suites, film scores and Broadway musicals - and for his talent as a bandleader, which allowed him to draw out some of the finest performances on record and stage by such legends of Jazz as Cootie Williams, Ray Nance and Ben Webster. Ellington's sophisticated arrangements and lyrics, which addressed everything from love to racial equality, were largely responsible for raising the perception of jazz from back alley blues to an art form on par with other genres of music. In doing so, Duke Ellington was one of the most important musical figures in American history.
Born Edward Kennedy Ellington on April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C., Duke Ellington was the son of Navy blueprint maker James Ellington and his wife, Daisy Kennedy. Both parents were pianists, and enrolled their son in lessons when he turned seven years old, while also schooling him in matters regarding manners, carriage and dress, which he pulled off with considerable grace for a schoolboy, earning him his enduring nickname in the process. Initially, Ellington cared more for baseball than the piano, but after hearing such heavyweight ragtime players as Eubie Blake and James P. Johnson at a local pool hall, he soon developed a respect for the instrument. While still only 15, he wrote his first composition, "Soda Fountain Rag," and soon began playing at clubs around the D.C. area. By the time he was 17 years old, Ellington had not only left high school, but also turned down an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to play music on a fulltime basis.
In late 1917, he formed his first group, The Duke's Serenaders, which performed on the society ball and embassy circuit until Ellington decided to head North and try his hand in the thriving Harlem, NY music scene. After some initial discouragement, Ellington and his band, now called the Washingtonians, won a series of crucial club dates that culminated in a four-year engagement at Harlem's Hollywood Club in 1923. There, they established their core sound, which reflected the "hot" or "jungle" style of the period, with trumpeter James "Bubber" Miley and trombonist Joe Nanton offering plunger mute-driven growls on their instruments while Ellington led the band through sultry, blues-inflected numbers. By 1924, the band had waxed their first eight records, including three original Ellington compositions.
The year 1927 proved to be a watershed for Ellington. He signed with agent-publisher Irving Mills, who arranged recording sessions with nearly every major record label in the business, thereby providing fans with a wide variety of opportunities to hear Ellington in exchange for a 45 percent interest in the composer's future and co-writer credits on numerous songs. That same year, Ellington picked up a lucrative regular booking at the famed Cotton Club, which included a weekly radio broadcast. The Cotton Club gigs further increased his exposure by allowing him to play for both black and white audiences, who propelled two singles, "Black and Tan Fantasy/Creole Love Call" and "Doin' the New Low Down/Diga Diga Doo," up the music charts in 1928. By the following year, Ellington had made his motion picture debut in the atmospheric 19-minute short "Black and Tan" (1929) and broken onto Broadway by playing on stage in the Florenz Ziegfeld's musical "Show Girl." Ellington's first No. 1 hit, "Three Little Words," featuring Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys on backing vocals, arrived in 1930 as part of the soundtrack for "Three Little Words."
By the 1930s and early '40s, Ellington faced considerable competition from a proliferation of swing bands led by the likes of Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Count Basie and numerous other white and black bandleaders. What separated his music from the others was its blend of danceable rhythms and musical complexity, as evidenced by such hits from the era as "Mood Indigo" (1930), "Sophisticated Lady" (1933), "Caravan" (1937) and "Take the 'A' Train" (1941). The latter number was the best-known of many celebrated songs composed for Ellington's band by Billy Strayhorn, who would become Ellington's most cherished collaborator, co-lyricist and arranger for the next quarter century. Another major contributor to Ellington's work during this period was singer Ivie Anderson, who began her 11-year stint with his band in 1931, during which time she recorded such hits as "It Don't Mean a Thing (If it Ain't Got that Swing") (1932), "Solitude" (1940) and "I Got it Bad (and That Ain't Good)" (1941), from Ellington's musical "Jump For Joy" (1938). Ellington's band also featured some of its greatest players during this period, including trumpeter Cootie Williams, who was replaced in 1940 by Ray Nance, as well as bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, all of whom lent strength and versatility to the already formidable lineup.
The 1942 strike by the American Federation of Musicians and subsequent recording ban left many performers without means to support themselves beyond concert dates. Ellington used the shutdown to concentrate on recording longer pieces that hewed closer to classical compositions than the standard three-minute single. Aided greatly by Strayhorn's background in classical music, Ellington introduced the jazz symphony "Black, Brown and Beige" at a Carnegie Hall performance in 1943. The composition, though less well received than his established hits, immediately set Ellington apart from other jazz performers by its complexity and ambitiousness, as well as its subject matter, which sought to address the history of African-Americans in the United States. From 1943 through 1948, Ellington also enjoyed a string of Top 10 and 20 hits, beginning in 1943 with "Don't get Around Much Anymore," a reworking of the 1940 instrumental song "Never No Lament" with new lyrics by Bob Russell. Both Ellington and the Ink Spots hit the top of the R&B charts with their versions of the song, which was soon followed by four more No. 1 singles, including "Sentimental Lady" (1943) and "Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me" (1944), which featured Russell's lyrics over his 1940 tune "Concerto for Cootie."
His run on the charts ended in 1948 with "Don't Be So Mean to Baby," which reached No. 15. Like many big band leaders, Ellington found that his brand of orchestral jazz had been supplanted by vocalists like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as the harder-driving sound of small jazz combos playing bebop and a looser, more raucous form of swing and blues called R&B. Undaunted, he supported himself through live performances while continuing to explore the possibilities of longer compositional works like "Harlem" (1950). That same year, he made his debut as a film composer with the soundtrack to John Huston's hard-boiled thriller "The Asphalt Jungle." In 1956, Ellington's career roared back to life with a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival that featured a towering rendition of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," a combination of two songs written by Ellington in 1937. The performance, which featured saxophonist Paul Gonsalves whipping the normally composed festival audience into a frenzy with a solo that eclipsed 28 choruses, made international headlines, including a cover story on Ellington by TIME, and led to a live album, Ellington at Newport (1956), which became the best-selling LP of his career.
Ellington soon began the second phase of his career, which encompassed thematic suites like Such Sweet Thunder (1957), an album of compositions based on works by William Shakespeare, and the multi-Grammy-winning score to Otto Preminger's courtroom drama "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959), for which he also contributed a cameo as a roadhouse owner. His next soundtrack effort, 1961's Paris Blues, earned him an Oscar nomination. Ellington continued to experiment throughout the 1960s, recording with established musicians like Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins, as well as newer, edgier talents like John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. A Pulitzer Prize nomination in 1965 was followed by the first of his Sacred Concerts, which sought to fuse jazz with Christian liturgical music. He would claim a Grammy in 1966 for one of his compositions from the concerts, "In the Beginning, God," and give two more such concerts, which he described as the most important work of his entire career, in 1968 and 1973.
Ellington's final years were marked by some of his most remarkable musical achievements, including The Far East Suite (1967), a collection of songs inspired by a tour through the Middle East and Asia that won the Best Instrumental Jazz Performance Grammy that year. He would net additional Grammys for .And His Mother Called Him Bill (1969), a tribute to Strayhorn, who had died in 1967, as well as New Orleans Suite in 1970 and the live album Togo-Brava Suite (1971). The Recording Academy also awarded him the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966, which was followed in quick succession by the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969 and France's Legion of Honor in 1973. Ellington continued to perform and record up until his death from lung cancer and pneumonia on May 24, 1974. However, his band remained active for the next two decades under the leadership of Ellington's only son, Mercer. When he died in 1996, his son Paul took over the Duke Ellington Orchestra, which remained active into the new millennium. His legacy also remained alive through the Tony-winning 1981 revue "Sophisticated Ladies," which featured many of his best-known songs in its score. In 1999, Ellington was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize before becoming the first African-American to appear on a U.S. coin when the United States Mint issued a District of Columbia quarter with Ellington's likeness on the reverse side.
By Paul Gaita