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Hey Kids, Meet Duke Ellington | Jazz Great Biography

from the Jazz Index



Hey Kids, Meet Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington (1899-1974) American Jazz Composer and Pianist

Duke Ellington was born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington, D.C. Edward was nicknamed Duke by a classmate who admired him. His royal nickname seemed appropriate for Duke because his elegant manner and dapper dress gave him the character of a young aristocrat.

Duke's parents enrolled him in piano lessons at the age of eight. His parents encouraged Duke to practice everyday even though Duke would have preferred to play baseball. He eventually quit his lessons and didn't return to the piano again until he was a teenager.

In the summer of 1914, while working as a soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Cafe, Duke wrote his first composition, "Soda Fountain Rag". "Soda Fountain Rag" was "written" by ear, however, as Duke had not yet learned to read and write music.

While attending Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. his music teacher gave him lessons in harmony. With additional tutoring from pianist and band leader Oliver "Doc" Perry, Duke learned to read and write music, develop a professional style, and improve his technique.

In New York, jazz musicians were in demand and by 1923 Ellington had moved there and formed his own band, the Washingtonians. Musicians and critics were noticing that Ellington's music was special even at this very early stage of his career. In 1927, Ellington accepted an engagement at Harlem's hottest jazz spot, the Cotton Club where he wrote some of his most well-known compositions during this time. He later formed the Duke Ellington Orchestra which, by 1930, grew to include 12 musicians and was achieving national recognition through recordings, radio broadcasts, and film appearances.

Beginning in 1943, Carnegie Hall began hosting a series of concerts with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The concerts featured some of Ellington's extended compositions which were sometimes 45 minutes long - much longer than his earlier music. Many people believe that his orchestra was his instrument because he expressed himself so beautifully through it.

In 1969, President Nixon threw Duke Ellington a party at The White House to celebrate his 70th birthday. Nixon honored Ellington by giving him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a fitting honor for a man who spent his career pursuing his own uniquely individual style.


Watch a Video

Watch a performance of the Duke Ellington Orchestra performing It Don't Mean a Thing (1943). Composed by Duke Ellington in 1931, with lyrics by Irving Mills.