Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 in Washington, DC to James Edward "J.E." Ellington and Daisy Kennedy Ellington. J.E. was a butler at the White House at some point in his life, and Ellington later related that his father tried to treat his family "as though he were a millionare". They kept him well-mannered and respectable. His friends and neighbors also inspired him to take pride in his heritage.

Ellington started to take piano lessons at age 7, although he did not really seem to enjoy them at the start, preferring baseball. His first job was selling peanuts at Washington Senators home games. Apparently, he suffered from stage fright while selling, and this early job allowed him to conquer it.

Edward started sneaking into local poolrooms at age 14. Meeting all the people there taught him to appreciate people, no matter where they came from; the music there inspired him to get back behind the piano. Although he composed his first piece that year, the "Soda Fountain Rag" (or the Poodle Dog Rag), he instead decided to try a different outlet for his creativity, accepting an art scholarship to Pratt Institute. (Another source says he went instead to Armstrong Manual Training School). He and his mother spent the summers vacationing in Philadelphia or along the Jersey Shore. In Asbury Park, Edward was told of a pianist named Harvey Brooks. Ellington and Brooks met later that summer in Philly, where Harvey got Ellington interested in the piano once again.

Sometime before Ellington was 17, a childhood friend who was impressed by his "regal" air and demeanor bestowed upon him the moniker "Duke". This name stuck with him the rest of his life.

In 1917, "The Duke's Serenaders" became Ellington's first band. During the successive years, the Duke became more and more responsible, first moving out of his parents' house, then becoming his own agent, and on July 2, 1918 he married Edna Thompson. Their son, Mercer Kennedy Ellington, was born on March 11, 1919.

1923 brought the Duke to New York City, following his own reputation there. His band, now renamed "The Washingtonians" and containing old friends such as Sonny Grier and Otto Hardwicke, started to become even more reknowned. During this period, the Duke met Fats Waller, who mentored him for a while. His first published song came in 1924, "Choo Choo (I Got To Hurry Home)", released on Blu-Disc. However, sometime during this period, after his family moved up to New York City, he and his wife separated. Although they never divorced, neither did they ever get back together.

The Duke's big break came in 1927, when he gained a residency at Harlem's famous Cotton Club, where white audiences regularly came to hear "black music". There were also regular radio broadcasts from this nightclub, airing the Duke's music all over the country. After the residency ended in 1931, the Duke and his band toured the USA and Europe, appeared in films, and still found time to record. The band's first major hit was Mood Indigo; following these were "Rocking In Rhythm", "In A Sentimental Mood", "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)", and many others.

It was in 1939 that Ellington met Billy "Swee' Pea" Strayhorn. The Duke first took him on as a lyricist, but soon discovered that the pianist had several other talents, and by 1942 Strayhorn was the Duke's right hand man. The two worked together until Strayhorn's death in 1967. It happens that some songs that artists are famous for aren't written by those artists; such was the case with Take The A Train, the theme song of The Duke Ellington Orchestra, for it was composed entirely by Billy Strayhorn.

Ellington shared his music credits freely, admitting that he often drew his inspiration from his bandmembers and he fleshed out those ideas by using the entire orchestra as his instrument. So dedicated to his bandmates was the Duke (and so necessary to him was his orchestra; his songs were incomplete, said Strayhorn, until his band played them) that during the postwar years, when the public's attention turned away from big bands, he paid their salaries directly out of his own royalty checks.

1n 1956, the band came back to prominence at the Newport (RI) Jazz Festival. The orchestra started somewhat poorly, four members short. At midnight, the entire band played a second set. The climax of the set was a 20-year-old song, "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue", modified for this show. Paul Gonsalves, the tenor saxophone player, played 27 choruses in the bridge section. The crown went wild, and the event even made it into Time Magazine, which featured a front cover photo of the Duke. Ellington would later claim to have been born there, on that day, since it was then that his life became good again.

In the late 1950s and early 60s, Ellington and Strayhorn composed a large number of film scores, starting with that of "Anatomy of a Murder". The pair also found themselves adapting some classical music, including Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite and Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite. The 1960s also had the Orchestra performing on diplomatic tours, sponsored by the State Department. In 1963, Ellington recorded with Coleman Hawkins, Frank Sinatra, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and an incredible album with John Coltrane.

The Duke recieved several awards throughout his lifetime: besides several honorary degrees and doctorates, he was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the United States, both medals being the highest honor that may be bestowed upon a civilian. He was even recommended for a Pulitzer Prize in 1965, although he was turned down. However, he always tried to outdo himself, keeping his standards in his setlists but rearranging them to make them more meaningful for the time and challenging to him and his Orchestra. His favorite compositions were always his 'next five'.

Duke Ellington died on May 24, 1974. He was working on an opera buffa, "Queenie Pie", while in hospital. His funeral was held in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, and he was laid to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery. Beatrice 'Evie' Ellis, his longtime companion, now shares his grave after her death in 1976. Mercer Ellington took on the reins of the orchestra for a few years after his father's death; he passed away in 1996.


The Duke's recorded history is incredible, and far be it from me to try and pick through his recordings for the 'best'. This writeup was written while listening to Satin Doll, a collection of European performances from the late 1950s, and "Duke Ellington & John Coltrane", already mentioned in the above text. Start with those, i suppose; it's hard to go wrong with any of his work. The man was far too prolific to attempt a discography.
Sources:
http://www.dukeellington.com/bio.html
http://americanhistory.si.edu/events/elling/ellbio.htm
http://www-personal.umich.edu/~cyoungk/ellingtonbio.htm
http://www.shapirobernstein.com/mbr/tour/ellington.htm
http://www.geocities.com/rjsax21/10ellington.html
http://www.schirmer.com/composers/ellington_bio.html

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