Saturday, September 26, 8899

Edward "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974)

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974) was an American composer, pianist, and band leader who became one of the most influential figures in jazz. As a composer and a band leader, Ellington's reputation has increased since his death. Posthumous recognition of his work include a special award citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board.

Ellington was to James Edward Ellington and Daisy Kennedy Ellington who lived in the home of his maternal grandparents at 2129 Ward Place, NW in Washington, D.C.

James Edward Ellington made blueprints for the United States Navy; he was a butler for Dr. Middleton F. Cuthbert, a prominent white physician, and he also worked occasionally as a White House caterer.

Daisy and J.E. were both piano players, she playing parlor songs and he operatic airs, and at the age of seven Ellington began taking piano lessons from Mrs. Marietta Clinkscales who lived at 1212 Street NW. The Clinkscales address is often, but erroneously, given as Ellington's childhood home. Daisy surrounded her son with dignified women who reinforced his manners and taught him to live elegantly. From his father, he absorbed self-confidence. Ellington’s childhood friends noticed that "his casual, offhand manner, his easy grace, and his dapper dress gave him the bearing of a young nobleman", and began calling him Duke. Ellington credited his "chum" Edgar McEntree, "a sharp dresser himself," with the nickname. "I think he felt that in order for me to be eligible for his constant companionship, I should have a title. So he called me Duke."

Ellington went to Armstrong High School in Washington, D.C. In the summer of 1914, while working as a soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Café he created his first composition, Soda Fountain Rag (also known as Poodle Dog Rag) by ear, because he had not yet learned to read and write music. "I would play the [Soda Fountain] Rag as a one-step, two-step, waltz, tango, and fox trot," Ellington has recalled. "Listeners never knew it was the same piece. I was established as having my own repertory." In his autobiography, Music is my Mistress, (1973) Ellington comments he missed more lessons than he attended, feeling at the time that playing the piano was not his talent. Over time, this would change. Ellington started sneaking into Frank Holiday's Poolroom at 14. Hearing the poolroom pianists play ignited Ellington's love for the instrument and he began to take the piano seriously.

Ellington began listening, watching, and imitating ragtime pianists, not only in Washington, D.C., but also in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, where he vacationed with his mother during the summer months. Dunbar High School music teacher Henry Lee Grant gave him private lessons in harmony. With the additional guidance of Washington pianist and band leader Oliver "Doc" Perry, Ellington learned to read sheet music, project a professional style, and improve his technique. Ellington was also inspired by his first encounters with James P. Johnson and Luckey Roberts, early jazz piano giants. Later in New York he took advice from Will Marion Cook, Fats Waller, and Sidney Bechet. Ellington started to play gigs in cafés and clubs in and around Washington, D.C. and began to realize his deep love for music. His attachment grew to be so strong that he turned down an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1916 and dropped out of Armstrong Manual Training School where he was studying commercial art just three months shy of graduation. In his decision to leave the academic world behind, he took the first steps in what would be an amazing life of professional musicianship.

From 1917 through 1919, Ellington launched his musical career, painting commercial signs by day and playing jazz by night. He also had a messenger job with the U.S. Navy and State Departments. Ellington moved out of his parents' home and into one that he had bought for himself as he quickly became a successful ragtime, jazz, and society pianist. At first, he played in other ensembles, then dove into the music business in late 1917 with the formation of his first group, The Duke’s Serenaders ("Colored Syncopators", his telephone directory advertising proclaimed) to which he was not only a member, but also the booking agent. His first play date was at the True Reformer's Hall where he took home 75 cents.

Ellington played throughout the Washington, D.C. area and into Virginia for private society balls and embassy parties. The band included: Otto Hardwick, who switched from bass to saxophone; Arthur Whetsel at the trumpet; Elmer Snowden at the banjo; and Sonny Greer at the drums. The boys thrived, performing for both African-American and white audiences, a rarity during the racially divided times. This will to succeed would eventually take his career to unforeseen heights and set him apart from all previous jazz composers. With his career taking off he felt secure enough to marry his high school sweetheart, Edna Thompson, on July 2, 1918 when he was 19. About 9 months after their marriage, on March 11, 1919 Edna gave birth to their only son, Mercer Kennedy Ellington., who later became a singer, band leader, and an important archivist of his father's musical life. Mercer played the trumpet and was the road manager of his father's band. Ellington's sister, Ruth, ran Tempo Music, the music publishing company he owned. His granddaughter, Mercedes is a dancer who has performed in network television productions.

When their drummer Sonny Greer was invited to join the Wilber Sweatman Orchestra in New York, Ellington made the fateful decision to leave behind his successful career in Washington, D.C. and aspire to the challenge of Harlem. The "Harlem Renaissance" was in progress. New dance crazes, like the Charleston, were bred there as well as African-American musical theater, including Eubie Blake's Shuffle Along. After the young musicians left the Sweatman Orchestra to strike out on their own, they found an emerging jazz scene that was highly competitive and hard to crack. They hustled pool by day and played whatever gig they could find. The young band met Willie "The Lion" Smith who showed them the scene and even gave them spare cash. They played at rent-house parties to get by. After a few months, the group returned to Washington, D.C. feeling discouraged. But in June of 1923, a gig in Atlantic City, New Jersey led to a play date at the prestigious Exclusive Club in Harlem, followed by a move to the Hollywood Club and a four-year engagement which gave Ellington a solid artistic base. The group was then called Elmer Snowden and his Black Sox Orchestra. and had seven members, including James "Bubber" Miley, a trumpeter whose growling style changed the "sweet" dance band sound of the group to one that was edgier and newer. They renamed themselves "The Washingtonians."

In 1923, Ellington made seven records, receiving composing credit on three including Choo Choo.

Snowden left the group in early 1924, and the up-and-comer took over as bandleader until his death in 1974.

After a fire, the Hollywood was re-opened as the Club Kentucky (often referred to as the Kentucky Club), an engagement which set the stage for further opportunities .

Then in 1925, Ellington contributed two songs to Chocolate Kiddies, an all-African-American revue which introduced European audiences to African-American styles and performers. While the group had grown ito a ten-piece ensemble, their distinct sound had begun to develop as well, displaying the non-traditional expression of Ellington’s arrangements, the street rhythms of Harlem, and the exotic-sounding trombone growls and wah-wahs, high-squealing trumpets, and sultry saxophones. For a short time,tenor saxophonist Sidney Bechet played with the group. This helped attract to the Washingtonians the attention of Paul Whiteman and Tommy Dorsey.

In 1927, King Oliver turned down a regular booking for his group as the house band at Harlem's Cotton Club; the offer passed to Ellington. At the Cotton Club, they were no longer strictly a dance band. Ellington's group performed all the music for the revues which mixed comedy, dance numbers, vaudeville, burlesque, hot music, and illegal alcohol. The musical numbers were composed by Jimmy McHugh and the lyrics by Dorothy Fields (later Harold Arlen [of Wizard of Oz fame] and Ted Koehler), with some Ellington originals mixed in. Weekly radio broadcasts from the club gave Ellington national exposure.

That same year, Ellington made a career-advancing agreement with agent-publisher Irving Mills giving Mills a 45% interest in Ellington's future. The brash, shrewd Mills had an eye for new talent and early on published compositions by Hoagy Carmichael, Dorothy Fields, and Harold Arlen.


East St. Louis Toodle-Oo (Miley/Ellington) (1927)


Trumpeter Bubber Miley (1902-1930) was present for only a short period but had a major influence on Ellington's sound. An early experimenter in jazz trumpet growling, Miley is credited with morphing the band's style from rigid dance instrumentation to a more "New Orleans", or "jungle" style. He also composed most of Black and Tan Fantasy and Creole Love Call. An alcoholic, Miley had to leave the band before they gained wider notoriety, and died in 1930 at 28. He was an important influence on Cootie Williams, another member of the orchestra (basically his replacement) in the early years and later.

In 1929, Ellington appeared in his first movie, a nineteen-minute all-African-American RKO short, Black and Tan, in which he played the hero "Duke." In the same year, The Cotton Club Orchestra appeared on stage for several months in Ziegfeld's Show Girl, along with vaudeville stars Jimmy Durante, Eddie Foy, Jr., Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler, and with music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Gus Kahn. That feverish period also included numerous recordings, under the pseudonyms Whoopee Makers, The Jungle Band, Harlem Footwarmers, and the Ten Black Berries.

In 1930, Ellington and his Orchestra connected with a whole different audience in a concert with Maurice Chevalier and they also performed at the Roseland, "America's foremost ballroom." Australian composer Percy Grainger was also an early admirer and supporter.

Ellington also appeared in the 1930 Amos 'n' Andy film Check and Double Check.


Mood Indigo (1930)

Creole Rhapsody (1931)


During the 1930's, Ellington's popularity continued to increase, largely as a result of the promotional skills of Mills, who got more than his fair share of co-composer credits. Mills arranged recording sessions on the Brunswick, Victor, and Columbia labels which gave Ellington popular recognition. Mills took the management burden off of Ellington's shoulders, allowing him to focus on his band's sound and his compositions.

With a weekly radio broadcast and famous clientèle nightly pouring in to see Ellington's Band, the period from 1932 to 1942 gave rise to a golden age for Ellington and the group.


It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing) (1932)

Sophisticated Lady (1933)


As the Depression deepened, the recording industry took a dive, dropping over 90% by 1933. Ellington and his band survived the hard times by taking to the road in a series of tours. Ivie Anderson was hired as vocalist (Sonny Greer had been providing occasional vocals). Normally, Ellington led the band by conducting from the keyboard using piano cues and visual gestures; very rarely did he conduct using a baton. As leader, Ellington was not a strict disciplinarian but he maintained control of his orchestra for decades to come with a crafty combination of charm, humor, flattery, and astute psychology. A complex, private person, he revealed his feelings to only his closest intimates and effectively used his public persona to deflect attention away from himself.

While Ellington's United States audience remained mainly African-American in this period, the Cotton Club had a near exclusive white clientèle and the band had a huge following overseas, demonstrated both in a trip to England in 1933 and a 1934 visit to the European mainland. The English visit saw Ellington win praise from members of the art music community, including composer Constant Lambert, who gave a boost to his aspirations to compose longer "serious" pieces.

On tour through the segregated South in 1934, the band avoided some of the traveling difficulties of African-American musicians by touring in private railcars, which provided easy accommodations, dining, and storage for equipment, while avoiding the indignities of segregated facilities.

Ellington and the band continued to appear in films throughout the 1930's and 1940's, both in short films and in features such as Murder at the Vanities and Belle Of The Nineties (1934).


In a Sentimental Mood (1935)


Ellington's Symphony In Black, which introduced Billie Holliday, was performed on film in 1935, winning an Academy Award as the best musical short subject.

The death of the composer's mother in 1935 led to a temporary slump in his career. Competition was also intensifying, as African-American and white Swing Bands began to rocket to popular attention, including those of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Carter, Earl Hines, Chick Webb, and Count Basie. Swing dancing became a youth phenomenon, particularly with white college audiences, and "dancability" drove record sales and bookings. Jukeboxes proliferated nationwide.

The Ellington band could certainly "swing" with the best of them, but Ellington's strength was mood and nuance, and richness of composition, hence his statement "jazz is music; swing is business."

The challenge for Ellington at that time was to create a workable balance between his ceaseless artistic exploration and the popular requirements of that era. Ellington countered with two innovations. He made recordings for smaller groups (sextets, octets, and nonets) drawn from his then 15-man band and he composed pieces that were concerto-like and focused on a specific instrumentalist, as with Jeep's Blues for Johnny Hodges and Yearning for Love with Lawrence Brown.


Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue (1937)

The New East St. Louis Toodle-Oo (1937) (Miley/Ellington)


Caravan (1937) and Perdido, both by Ellington's band member Juan Tizol, brought the "Spanish Tinge" to big-band jazz.

Ellington ended his association with Mills in 1937, although he continued to record under Mills's banner through 1940.

In 1937, the band returned to the Cotton Club which had relocated to the mid-town theater district. In the summer of that year, Ellington's father died, and due to many expenses the leader's financial condition was restricted. His situation improved in 1938 and he met and moved in with Cotton Club employee Beatrice "Evie" Ellis. After splitting with agent Irving Mills, he signed on with William Morris.


I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart (1938)


During these ten years, Ellington added three new members to his orchestra (including 22-year-old Billy Strayhorn, in 1939) and composed some of his most well-known short works.

The most important event of Ellington’s “golden age” was the arrival of Billy Strayhorn. Hired as a lyricist, Strayhorn , nicknamed "Swee' Pea" for his mild manner, eventually became a vital member of the Ellington Organization and as Ellington described him, "my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back if my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine."

Strayhorn, with his classical music training, applied that knowledge to arrange and polish future Ellington works. Ellington came to rely on Strayhorn's harmonic judgment, discipline, and taste.

Three-minute masterpieces flowed from the minds of Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Ellington's son Mercer Ellington, and members of the Orchestra. Mainstem, Harlem Airshaft, and Streets of New York date from this period.

The 1930's ended with a very successful European tour just as World War II loomed.


Concerto for Cootie (1940)

Main theme, first four bars

F: Fa Re Ri Mi Sol Re Ri Mi, with repeat in rhythmic variant

Harmony, simplified from original, in call-and-response with melody,

I IV vi I64 vi7 V7 V7 I

Rondo form of ABACABA


Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me (1940, for Cootie Williams)

Cotton Tail (1940)

In a Mellow Tone

Ko-Ko (1940)


Ray Nance joined in, replacing Cootie Williams who had "defected," contemporary wags claimed, to Benny Goodman. Nance, however, added violin to the instrumental colors Ellington had at his disposal. A privately made recording of Nance's first concert date, at Fargo, North Dakota, in November 1940, is probably the most effective display of the band at the peak of its powers during this period. This recording is one of the first of innumerable live performances which survive, made by enthusiasts or broadcasters, significantly expanding the Ducal discography as a result.


Take the "A" Train (Strayhorn) (1941)


Jump for Joy (1941, Ellington's first full-length musical stage revue. Unfortunately, starting a regular pattern, Ellington's longer works were generally not well-received, and Jump closed after only six performances in Los Angeles.


C Jam Blues (1942)


The first recording ban of 1942-3 had a serious effect on all the big bands because of the increase in royalty payments to musicians its resolution necessitated; the financial viability of Ellington's operation was under threat, though Ellington's income as a songwriter ultimately subsidized the Orchestra. Ellington always spent lavishly and although he drew a respectable income from the Orchestra's operations, the band's income often just covered expenses.

[Duke Ellington, May 1943, Hurricane Club, New York]


Cabin In The Sky (1943, film)


The band reached a creative peak in the early 1940's, when Ellington wrote for an orchestra of distinctive voices and displayed tremendous creativity. He often composed specifically for the style and skills of these individuals, such as Jeep's Blues for saxophonist Johnny Hodges and The Mooche for Tricky Sam Nanton.

Ellington's long-term aim became to extend instrumental jazz form from the three-minute limit of the 78 rpm record side, of which he was an acknowledged master, and by the 40's this became a regular feature of Ellington's work. In the endeavor, he was helped by Strayhorn, who had enjoyed a more thorough training in the forms associated with classical music than Ellington. The first of these, Black, Brown, and Beige (1943), was dedicated to telling the story of African-Americans, the place of slavery, and the church in their history.

In November of 1943 Ellington debuted Black, Brown, and Beige in Carnegie Hall and began a series of concerts ideally suited to displaying Ellington's longer works.

While some jazz musicians had played at Carnegie Hall before, few had performed anything as elaborate as Ellington’s work. Some of the musicians created a sensation in their own right. The short-lived Jimmy Blanton transformed the use of double bass in jazz, allowing it to function as a solo rather than a rhythm instrument alone. Ben Webster too, the Orchestra's first regular tenor saxophonist, started a rivalry with Johnny Hodges as the Orchestra's foremost voice in the sax section.

Ellington's sole book musical, Beggar's Holiday, was staged on Broadway in 1946.

Meanwhile, the development of modern jazz, or bebop, the music industry's shift to solo vocalists such as the young Frank Sinatra as the Big Band age died out, and the diminishing popularity of ballroom and nightclub entertainment in the early television era all undermined Ellington's popularity and status as a trendsetter. Bebop rebelled against commercial jazz, dance jazz, and strict forms to became the music of jazz aficionados.

Furthermore, by 1950 the emerging African-American popular music style known as Rhythm and Blues drew away the young African-American audience and soon Rock and Roll followed. In the face of these major social shifts, Ellington continued on his own course, but major defections soon roiled his band and he started to retire earlier works composed for now departed members. For a time though Ellington continued to turn out major pieces, such as the Kay Davis vocal feature Transblucency and extended compositions such as Harlem (1950), whose score he presented to music-loving President Harry Truman.

In 1951, Ellington suffered a major loss of personnel, with Sonny Greer, Lawrence Brown, and most significantly, Johnny Hodges leaving to pursue other ventures.


Satin Doll (Strayhorn/Ellington) (1953)


Lacking overseas opportunities and motion picture appearances, Ellington's band survived on "one-nighters" and whatever else came their way, even six weeks in the summer of 1955 as the band for the Aquacade in Flushing, New York. Even though he made many television appearances, Ellington's hope that television would provide a significant new venue for his type of jazz did not pan out. The introduction of the 33 1/3 rpm LP record and hi-fi phonograph did give new life to older compositions. However by 1955, after ten years of recording for Capitol, Ellington no longer had a regular recording affiliation.

Ellington's appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956 returned him to wider prominence and exposed him to new audiences. The feature Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, with saxophonist Paul Gonsalves's six-minute saxophone solo, had been in the band's book since 1937, but on this occasion it nearly created a riot. The revived attention should not have surprised anyone -- Hodges had returned the previous year, and Ellington's collaboration with Strayhorn had been renewed around the same time, under terms amenable to the younger man. Such Sweet Thunder (1957), based on Shakespeare's plays and characters, and The Queen's Suite the following year (dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II), were products of the renewed impetus which the Newport appearance had helped to create.

A new record contract with Columbia produced Ellington's best-selling LP Ellington at Newport and six years of recording stability under producer Irving Townsend, who coaxed both commercial and artistic productions from Ellington. In 1957, CBS (Columbia's parent corporation) aired a live television production of A Drum Is a Woman, an allegorical suite which received mixed reviews. Other festivals at Monterey and elsewhere provided new venues for live exposure, and a European tour in 1958 was wildly received. After a 25-year gap, Ellington and Strayhorn again wrote film scores, this time for Anatomy of a Murder and Paris Blues. Despite some personnel turnover, in 1960 Ellington still possessed a seasoned corp with Carney, Hodges, Williams, Brown, Nance, Hamilton, Procope, Anderson, and Gonsalves. Ellington and Strayhorn, always looking for new musical territory, produced adaptations of John Steinbeck's novel Sweet Thursday, Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite and Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt. The late 1950s also saw Ella Fitzgerald record her Duke Ellington Songbook with Ellington's band, a recognition that his songs had now become part of the cultural canon.

In the late 1950's, his work in films took the shape of scoring for soundtracks, including Anatomy of a Murder (1959), with James Stewart, in which he appeared fronting a roadhouse combo, and Paris Blues, (1961), which featured Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier as jazz musicians.

Musicians who had previously worked with Ellington returned to the band as members: Lawrence Brown in 1960 and Cootie Williams two years later.

In the early 1960's, Ellington was between recording contracts, which allowed him to record with a variety of artists mostly not previously associated with him. The Ellington and Count Basie orchestras recorded together and he made a record with Coleman Hawkins, plus some work for Frank Sinatra's new Reprise label. In 1962, he participated in a session which produced the Money Jungle (United Artists) album with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, and also recorded with John Coltrane for Impulse.

He wrote an original score for Shakespeare's Timon of Athens that was first used in the Stratford Festival production that opened July 29, 1963 for director Michael Langham, who has used it for several subsequent productions, most recently in an adaptation by Stanley Silverman that expands on the score with some of Ellington's best-known works.

His earlier hits were now established standards, earning Ellington impressive royalties.

Ellington was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1965, but was turned down. His reaction at 67 years old: "Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be famous too young." He performed his first Concert of Sacred Music, an attempt at fusing Christian liturgy with jazz, in September of the same year, and even though it received middling reviews, Ellington was enormously proud of the composition and performed it dozens of times. This concert was followed by two others of the same type in 1968 and 1973, called the Second and Third Sacred Concerts, respectively. This caused controversy in what was already a tumultuous time in the U.S. Many saw the Sacred Music suites as an attempt to reinforce commercial support for organized religion, though Ellington simply said it was, "the most important thing I've done," perhaps with a touch of hyperbole.

[Ellington receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Nixon, 1969]

Though his later work was overshadowed by his music of the early 1940's, Ellington continued to make vital and innovative recordings, including The Far East Suite (1966), The New Orleans Suite (1970), and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (1971), much of it inspired by his world tours. It was during this time that Ellington recorded his only album with Frank Sinatra, entitled Francis A. & Edward K..

Although he made two more stage appearances before his death, Ellington performed what is considered his final "full" concert in a ballroom at Northern Illinois University on March 20, 1974. The hall was renamed the Duke Ellington Ballroom in 1980.

Ellington died of lung cancer and pneumonia on May 24, 1974, a month after his 75th birthday, and was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York City. At his funeral attended by over 12,000 people at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Ella Fitzgerald summed up the occasion, "It's a very sad day. A genius has passed."

Mercer Ellington picked up the reins of the band immediately after Duke's death, conducting it until his own demise in 1996. Today the band performs under the direction of Barry Lee Hall, Jr.

Gunther Schuller said "Ellington composed incessantly to the very last days of his life. Music was indeed his mistress; it was his total life and his commitment to it was incomparable and unalterable. In jazz he was a giant among giants. And in twentieth century music, he may yet one day be recognized as one of the half-dozen greatest masters or our time."

Ellington lived for years in a townhouse on the corner of Manhattan's Riverside Drive and West 106th Street. After his death, West 106th Street was officially renamed Duke Ellington Boulevard. A large memorial to Ellington, created by sculptor Robert Graham, was dedicated in 1997 in New York's Central Park, near Fifth Avenue and 110th Street, an intersection named Duke Ellington Circle.

[Duke Ellington - Concerto for Cootie
Olivier Messiaen - Quartet for the End of Time]

[8900 Weill / 8899 Ellington / 8899 Poulenc]