Duke Ellington was born Edward Kennedy Ellington on April 28, 1899 in Washington, D.C. to Daisy and James Ellington. They served as the ideal role models for young Duke and taught him everything from table manners to the power of music. He was eight when he got his first piano lessons.
By the age of fourteen, he was sneaking into Frank Hollidays poolroom. He learned from his experiences in the poolroom how to appreciate the value of mixing with a wide rage of people. He attended the Armstrong Manual Training School to study commercial art instead of an academically-oriented school. During the summer months, he would seek out and listen to ragtime pianists in Washington. He said he decided to become a musician when he realized that when playing the piano, there was always a pretty girl standing down at the bass clef end of the piano, thus the music career of Duke Ellington was born. He was called Duke because he was something of a dandy, with a love of fancy clothes and an elegant style.
He retained those traits throughout his life. The secret of the Ellington style was that it was no mere style at all but simply the manifestation of what he was made of within. Between 1899 and 1974, Duke moved from his home town to New York where he formed his own band and began to arrange music and write jazz in a distinctive style which included serious concert music, tone poems, ballet suites and short concerto-like pieces. Another well known piece of Dukes was Ko-ko, a bluesy mood with model effects and complex harmonies that put it in the realm of concert music. Ellingtons career as a bandleader lasted more than fifty years; during at least forty-five of which he was a public figure of some fame. It is often said that there were three major marks during that span.
The first occurred in the late 1920s when Ellington attained the security and prestige of a residency at the Cotton Club2, where the best black entertainers of the day worked for gangsters and performed for all-white audiences. He survived those years with his dignity intactno small achievement. By the end of the twenties, he had begun to experiment and develop as a composer and arranger, and he had several hits under his belt. Among those popular successes were some of his earliest masterpieces, engaging bits of exotica that reveal their subtlety and solidity only after careful listening. In the early thirties, his skills were sharpened and he made his first attempts at composing longer works.
Reworkings of his earlier successes was and indication of the progress he had made. No longer did you hear the chugging sound of early jazz bands, now you heard a panorama of musical textures bound together by a subtler but no less incisive pulse. By the late thirties, he had gathered the best players he ever had under his command at one time and he was now ready. The second flowering of the Duke dates roughly from 1938 to 1942. This span covers the brief tenure in the band of Jimmy Blanton, the doomed young player of the string bass as well as the residency of Ben Webster, Dukes first tenor sax wizard. He completed a reed section that already boasted Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, and Barney Bigard.
The trumpet section had Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams. On trumbones were Joe Nanton, Juan Tizol, and Lawrence Brown. Sonny Greer on drums, and none other than the Duke himself on piano. All players were among the major players in the history of jazz, masters of their instruments. The 1956 Newport Jazz Festival3 began Dukes third and final peak period, one that lasted through most of the sixties.
If this peak never reached as high as the earlier ones, it is still remarkable as a sustained period of creative output. Duke concentrated more on his suites, the concert-length works that appeared regularly and later, his sacred concerts. The band toured constantly, playing concerts and dances, traveling all over the world.He continued to record and tour at a ferocious pace, and still produced satisfying new music. On those last recordings, the band no longer sparkles as brilliantly as it once did, its at this point that Dukes fatigue is apparent. Music was his mistress as the Duke would always say, she played second fiddle to no one and she stood by him to the end.
Whatever his shortcomings, the Duke created a body of music that endures forever. His place in the sweep of American music is unique and equal that of any of the acknowledged European masters. In 1993, the Smithsonian Institutions National Museum of American History opened an exhibition entitled Beyond Category: the Musical Genius of Duke Ellington. Maybe one day this amazing depiction of Ellingtons life, his work and his world will be accessible online or on CD-Rom.
Ellington gave us style and first-class music that will never grow old.References Leonard Feather, (1976). The pleasures of Jazz. Horizon Press New York Jean Ferris, (1998). Americas Musical Landscape. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
Stephen M. Stroff, (1994). Discovering Great Jazz. New Market Press, New York.