Duke Ellington’s pre-eminence in jazz is not only because of the very high aesthetic standard of his output and not simply due to his remarkable abilities as a pianist, composer and bandleader, but also to the fact that he has extended the boundaries of jazz more than any other musician, without abandoning the true essence of the music. Perhaps no other American musician left such a massive and challenging legacy in composition and performance.
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 1899, to parents James Edward and Daisy Kennedy Ellington. Duke, even as a teenager, had a great talent for music. His school music teacher, Mrs. Clinkscales, who played the piano, was always the inspiration for him to just sit down and start tinkering around with a few notes that usually became big hits. In the beginning of his musical life, Duke began to take a promising interest in a new type of music that would later be called jazz. Choosing to base his career on a new idea may not have been smart, but Duke took this chance and in turn became one of the most famous musicians in America. In our nation’s capital city, Ellington sneaked into Washington burlesque halls finding ragtime musicians, including James P. Johnson, and hearing the rhythms of people from all walks of life. He later returned in earnest to his piano studies and at age fourteen wrote his first composition, “Soda Fountain Rag” aka “Poodle Dog Rag.” Awarded an art scholarship by Pratt Institute, Ellington used his painting skills to make signs advertising his and other bands’ appearances. At the age of seventeen, he decided to pursue the lucrative music business and around this time earned the sobriquet “Duke” for his sartorial splendor and regal air.
Duke’s first job was at a government office. He was a clerk who received minimum wage and was barely getting by. He would arrange dance bands for weddings and parties for extra money. He put his knowledge of piano playing to use and played at a few of the dance parties and weddings. After employing his artistic talent in painting posters, Duke then decided to put together his own band.
This new music, known as jazz, was considered to be low and vulgar because it was music that grew directly out of the Black culture. In the early years of Duke’s career, segregation was at one of its all time worst points in history. In time, jazz became a universally recognized form of art, and has been said that it is the only real form that has originated from the American soul.
Duke, himself, was an elegant man. When the white people looked down on the black man and his music, Duke managed to bring dignity to every one of his performances. Once, the jazz historian Leonard Feather described Duke as, “an inch over six feet tall, sturdily built, he had an innate grandeur that would have enabled him to step with unquenched dignity out of a mud puddle.” Duke’s private life was something of an enigma. Although he had many friends, he never really told them everything about himself. He would often guard his privacy, probably because he had so little of it. When he was alone though, he would almost always be arranging the next tune for the band to play, and was always preparing something for the band to do in the next performance. Duke attracted some of the greatest musicians to join his band. Because of this, it has been said that many of Duke’s pieces are almost impossible to exactly duplicate without the personal style of the original musicians.
The 1920’s became known as “the Jazz Age” because jazz had hit its first great burst of popularity. At that time Duke then added a young drummer named Sonny Greer. A few years after Greer was hired, Duke’s band hit a very rough spot. They were often stuck in the street with no money and nowhere to go. Duke and his band often were stuck doing crude recordings just for a few dollars to buy a meal. In November 1924, Duke made his publishing and recording debut with “Choo Choo (I Got To Hurry Home)” released on the Blu-Disc label. In 1925, he contributed two songs to Chocolate Kiddies, an all-black revue, which introduced European audiences to black-American styles and performers. In the autumn of 1927, luck had crossed paths with Duke again. The manager of Duke’s band, Irving Mills, had heard that the prestigious Cotton Club was looking for a new band, and immediately Irving began campaigning for Duke. Duke and his band opened on December 4, 1927 to meet a mad rush of spectators who eagerly waited to hear Dukes newest pieces. The band became very prosperous and had their own spot on the Cotton Club floor with special lighting and accommodations. The orchestra, now a ten piece conglomeration, developed a distinctive sound that displayed the non-traditional voicing of Ellington’s arrangements, the street rhythms of Harlem, and featured the exotic-sounding trombone growls and wah-wahs, high-squealed trumpets, and sultry saxophone blues licks of the band members. With the success of compositions like “Mood Indigo,” an increasing number of recordings and national radio broadcasts from the Cotton Club, Duke Ellington and His Jungle Band’s reputation soared. While Duke’s band was performing at the Cotton Club, they participated in more than sixty-four recording sessions.
When he arrived in New York in 1931, his band grew to almost three times what it originally had been at the Cotton Club. Duke feared that this would become a very serious problem, considering how the stock market crashed in late 1929 and millions of people across the United States were out of work. Somehow, though, most of the entertainment business survived the economic hardships. Ellington’s band had appeared on Broadway and had even gone to Hollywood to make a movie. Duke’s band was having a hard time performing in the South because of the segregation laws not allowing blacks to eat in white restaurants or finding accommodations suitable for the band. In 1933, most of the other big bands were adding vocalists to their ensemble and thus Duke felt pressured to do so too. Duke then hired a woman named Ivie Anderson and quickly proved that he had done the right thing.
During the same year, his band got a chance to play in Europe. At first Duke was very skeptical of how his music would be reacted to just because jazz had its roots in America and the Europeans had a very contrasting style of music. The band was amazed at how well informed the Europeans were about their entire past. Even the Prince of Wales came to hear the band play. All of the concerts held in England were sellouts and the band was also well received in Scotland and Paris.
When Duke’s band returned to America, they began feeling the hardships and sorrow of traveling on the road. Also, many of the band members, including Duke, began developing drinking problems, which started making some of the musicians’ lives miserable. After World War II, the mood and musical tastes of the country shifted and hard times befell big bands. The Ellington band was not always financially self-sufficient, but during the lean times Ellington used his songwriting royalties to meet the soloists’ salaries. One could assign to Ellington the altruistic motive of loyalty to his sidemen, but another motivation may have been his compositional style. “The band was his instrument, and no Ellington composition was complete until he brought it to his orchestra,” said Billy Strayhorn, lyricist, collaborator, and pianist. An added downfall was the death of Duke’s mother, Daisy, in May of 1935, setting Duke into a deep depression. He used to sit and stare into space while he talked to himself. Fortunately though, those long pep talks with himself seem to snap Duke out of his depression. As things began to look up for him, Duke composed a new song called “Reminiscing in Tempo”. Critics did not look upon the song favorably, but it did seem to sum everything up that was written by Ellington from 1931 to 1939 in a combination of gladness, sadness, triumph, and tragedy.
Irving Mills formed his own record company in 1936, that boomed with popularity as the demand for big bands playing this new swing music was in intense demand. By 1956, however, the chasm between mere existence and prosperity had overtaken Ellington. He saw the popular outdoor jazz fest (in its third year) as a means to redeem his reputation with fans, critics, journalists, and Columbia Records, with whom he had signed a new 5-year contract just the week before. By the 1960’s Duke traveled the globe so many times that he become known as the unofficial ambassador to the United States. Duke’s band had played in Russia, Japan, Latin America, the Far East, the Middle East, and Africa.
Ellington had previously written music for film and television and continued to do so, earning an Academy Award nomination for the score to Paris Blues in 1961. By 1972, the times and styles of the world no longer fit the old time style of Duke’s band. This was the turning point in the fall of the band’s career. Duke Ellington’s career spanned the whole history of the birth of the music called jazz. Nowhere in that glorious history is there a man who had more love for music, more respect for his art, than the man they called the Duke. Duke Ellington is America’s most prolific composer of the 20th century, in both number of pieces (almost 2,000) and variety of forms. His artistic development and sustained achievement are among the most spectacular in the history of music. His, was a distinctly democratic vision of music, in the service of the whole band’s sound, and more than any other composer, he codified the sound of America in the 20th century.