(29 Apr. 1899–24 May 1974), jazz musician and composer, was born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington, D.C., the son of James Edward Ellington, a butler, waiter, and later printmaker, and Daisy Kennedy. The Ellingtons were middle-class people who struggled at times to make ends meet. Ellington's mother was particularly attached to him; in her eyes he could do no wrong. They belonged to Washington's black elite, who put much stock in racial pride. Ellington developed a strong sense of his own worth and a belief in his destiny, which at times shaded over into egocentricity. Because of this attitude, and his almost royal bearing, his schoolmates early named him “Duke.”Ellington's interest in music was slow to develop. He was given piano lessons as a boy but soon dropped them. He was finally awakened to music at about fourteen when he heard a pianist named Harvey Brooks, who was not much older than he. Brooks, he later said, “was swinging, and he had a tremendous left hand, and when I got home I had a real yearning to play.”He did not take formal piano lessons, however, but picked the brains of local pianists, some of whom were excellent. He was always looking for shortcuts, ways of getting effects without much arduous practicing. As a consequence, it was a long time before he became proficient at the stride style basic to popular piano playing of the time.As he improved, Ellington discovered that playing for his friends at parties was a route to popularity. He began to rehearse with some other youngsters, among them the saxophonist Otto “Toby” Hardwick and the trumpeter Artie Whetsol. Eventually a New Jersey drummer, Sonny Greer, joined the group. By age sixteen or seventeen Ellington was playing occasional professional jobs with these and other young musicians. The music they played was not jazz, which still was not widely known, but rags and ordinary popular songs.
Ellington was not yet committed to music. He was also studying commercial art, for which he showed an aptitude. However, he never graduated from high school, and in 1918 he married Edna Thompson; the following spring their son, Mercer, was born. Although later Ellington lived with several different women, he never divorced his wife.He now had a family to support and was perforce drawn into the music business, one of the few areas in which blacks could earn good incomes and achieve a species of fame. Increasingly he was working with a group composed of Whetsol, Greer, and Hardwick under the nominal leadership of the Baltimore banjoist Elmer Snowden. This was the nucleus of later Ellington bands. In 1923 the group ventured to New York and landed a job at a well-known Harlem cabaret, Barron's Exclusive Club. The club had a clientele of intellectuals and the social elite, some of them white, and the band was not playing jazz, but “under conversation music.” Ellington was handsome and already a commanding figure, and the others were polite, middle-class youths. They were well liked, and in 1923 they were asked to open at the Hollywood, a new club in the Broadway theater district, soon renamed the Kentucky Club.As blacks, they were expected to play the new hot music, now growing in popularity. Like many other young musicians, they were struggling to catch its elusive rhythms, and they reached out for a jazz specialist, the trumpeter James “Bubber” Miley, who had developed a style based on the plunger mute work of a New Orleanian, “King” Oliver. Miley not only used the plunger for wah-wah effects but also employed throat tones to produce a growl. He was a hot, driving player and set the style for the band. Somewhat later, Sidney Bechet, perhaps the finest improviser in jazz at the time, had a brief but influential stay with the band.Through the next several years the band worked off and on at the Kentucky Club, recording with increasing frequency. Then, early in 1924, the group fired Snowden for withholding money, and Ellington was chosen to take over. Very quickly he began to mold the band to his tastes. He was aided by an association with Irving Mills, a song publisher and show business entrepreneur with gangland connections. Mills needed an orchestra to record his company's songs; Ellington needed both connections and guidance through the show business maze. His contract with Mills gave Ellington control of the orchestra.As a composer, Ellington showed a penchant for breaking rules: if he were told that a major seventh must rise to the tonic, he would devise a piece in which it descended. His still-developing method of composition was to bring to rehearsal—or even to the recording studio—scraps and pieces of musical ideas, which he would try in various ways until he got an effect he liked. Members of the band would offer suggestions, add counterlines, and work out harmonies among themselves. It was very much a cooperative effort, and frequently the music was never written down. Although in time Ellington worked more with pencil and paper, this improvisational system remained basic to his composing.Beginning with a group of records made in November 1926, the group found its voice: the music from this session has the distinctive Ellington sound. The first important record was “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” (1926), a smoky piece featuring Bubber Miley growling over a minor theme. Most important of all was “Black and Tan Fantasy” (1927), another slow piece featuring Miley in a minor key. It ends with a quotation from Chopin's “Funeral March.” In part because of this touch, “Black and Tan Fantasy” was admired by influential critics such as R. D. Darrell, who saw it as a harbinger of a more sophisticated, composed jazz. Increasingly thereafter, Ellington was seen by critics writing in intellectual and music journals as a major American composer.Then, in December 1927 the group was hired as the house band at the Cotton Club, rapidly becoming the country's best-known cabaret. It was decided, for commercial purposes, to feature a “jungle sound,” built around the growling of Miley and the trombonist Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton. About this time Ellington added musicians who would fundamentally shape the band's sound: the clarinetist Barney Bigard, a well-trained New Orleanian with a liquid tone; the saxophonist Johnny Hodges, who possessed a flowing, honeyed sound and quickly became the premier altoist in jazz; and Cootie Williams, who replaced the wayward Miley and soon became a master of the plunger mute. These and other instrumentalists each had a distinctive sound and gave Ellington a rich “tonal palette,” which he worked with increasing mastery.Through the 1920s and 1930s Ellington created a group of masterpieces characterized by short, sparkling melodies, relentless contrasts of color and mood, and much more dissonant harmony than was usual in popular music. Among the best known of these are “Mood Indigo” (1930) and “Creole Love Call” (1927), two simple but very effective mood pieces; “Rockin' in Rhythm” (1930), a driving up-tempo piece made up of sharply contrasting melodies; and “Daybreak Express” (1933), an uncanny imitation of train sounds. These pieces alone won Ellington a major position in jazz history, but they are only examples of scores of brilliant works.By now he had come into his own as a songwriter. During the 1930s he created many standards, like “Prelude to a Kiss” (1938), “Sophisticated Lady” (1932), and “Solitude” (1934). This songwriting was critically important, for, leaving aside musical considerations, Ellington's ASCAP royalties were in later years crucial in his keeping the band going.It must be admitted, however, that Ellington borrowed extensively in producing these tunes. “Creole Love Call” and “Mood Indigo,” although credited to Ellington, were written by others. Various of his musicians contributed to “Sophisticated Lady,” “Black and Tan Fantasy,” and many more. Though it is not always easy to know how much others contributed to a given work, it was Ellington's arranging and orchestrating of the melodies that lifted pieces like “Creole Love Call” above the mundane.By 1931, through broadcasts from the Cotton Club and his recordings, Ellington had become a major figure in popular music. In that year the band left the club and for the remainder of its existence played the usual mix of one-nighters, theater dates, and longer stays in nightclubs and hotel ballrooms. The singer Ivie Anderson, who would work with the organization for more than a decade and remains the vocalist most closely associated with Ellington, joined him at this time.In 1933 the band made a brief visit to London and the Continent. British critics convinced Ellington that he was more than just a dance-band leader. He had already written one longer, more “symphonic” piece, “Creole Rhapsody” (1931). He now set about writing more. The most important of these was “Black, Brown, and Beige,” which was given its premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1943. The opening was a significant event in American music: a black composer writing “serious” music using themes taken from black culture.Classical critics did not much like the piece. The problem, as always with Ellington's extended work, was that, lacking training, he was unable to unify the smaller themes and musical ideas he produced. Ellington, although temporarily discouraged, continued to write extended pieces, which combined jazz elements with devices meant to reflect classical music.Additionally, beginning in 1936, Ellington recorded with small groups drawn from the band. These recordings, such as Johnny Hodges's “Jeep's Blues” (1938) and Rex Stewart's “Subtle Slough,” contain a great deal of his finest work. Yet most critics would say that his finest work of the time was a series of concertos featuring various instrumentalists, including “Echoes of Harlem” (1935) for Cootie Williams and “Clarinet Lament” (1936) for Barney Bigard.In 1939 the character of the band began to change when the bassist Jimmy Blanton, who was enormously influential during a career cut short by death, and the tenor saxophonist Ben Webster were added. Ellington had never had a major tenor soloist at his disposal, and Webster's rich, guttural utterances were a new voice for him to work with. Also arriving in 1939 was Billy Strayhorn, a young composer who had more formal training than Ellington. Until Strayhorn's death in 1967, a substantial part of the Ellington oeuvre was actually written in collaboration with Strayhorn, although it is difficult to tease apart their individual contributions. In 1940 Ellington switched from Columbia to Victor. The so-called Victor band of 1940 to 1942, when a union dispute temporarily ended recording in the United States, is considered by many jazz critics to be one of the great moments in jazz. “Take the ‘A’ Train,” written by Strayhorn, is a simple, indeed basic, piece, which gets its effect from contrapuntal lines and the interplay of the band's voices. “Cotton Tail” (1940) is a reworking of “I've Got Rhythm” that outshines the original melody and is famous for a powerful Webster solo and a sinuous, winding chorus for the saxophones. “Harlem Air Shaft” (1940) is a classic Ellington program piece meant to suggest the life in a Harlem apartment building and is filled with shifts and contrasts that produce a sense of rich disorder. “Main Stem” (1942) is another hard-driving piece, offering incredible musical variety within a tiny space. Perhaps the most highly regarded recording from this period is “Ko-Ko” (1940). Originally written as part of an extended work, it is based on a blues in E-flat minor and is built up of the layering of increasingly dissonant and contrasting lines.By the late 1940s, it was felt by many jazz writers that the band had deteriorated. The swing band movement, which had swept up the Ellington group in the mid-1930s, had collapsed, and musical tastes were changing. A number of the old hands left, taking with them much of Ellington's tonal palette, and while excellent newcomers replaced them, few equaled the originals. Through the late 1940s and into the 1950s there were constant changes of personnel, shifts from one record company to the next, and a dwindling demand for the orchestra. Henceforth Ellington would need his song royalties to support what was now a very expensive organization. In 1956 Ellington was asked to play the closing Saturday night concert at the recently established Newport Jazz Festival. At one point in the evening he brought the tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves forward to play twenty-seven choruses of the blues over a rhythm section. The crowd was wildly enthusiastic; the event got much media attention, and Ellington's star began to rise again.Through the late 1950s and 1960s Ellington continued to create memorable pieces, many of them contributed by Strayhorn, particularly the haunting “Blood Count” (1967). Also of value were a series of collaborations with Ellington by major jazz soloists from outside the band, including Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and John Coltrane. Other fine works were Strayhorn's “UMMG,” featuring Dizzy Gillespie; “Paris Blues” (1960), a variation on the blues done for a movie by that name; and an album tribute to Strayhorn issued as … And His Mother Called Him Bill (1967).But by this time Ellington's main concerns were his extended works, which eventually totaled some three dozen. Many of these were dashed off to meet deadlines, or even pulled together in rehearsal, and are of slight value. Almost all suffer from the besetting flaw in Ellington's longer works, his inability to make unified wholes of what are often brilliant smaller pieces.Although some critics insist that much of this work is of value, it was not well reviewed outside the jazz press when it appeared. Among the most successful are “The Deep South Suite” (1946), “Harlem (A Tone Parallel to Harlem),” first recorded in 1951, and “The Far East Suite” in collaboration with Strayhorn and recorded in 1966.To Ellington, the most important of these works were the three “Sacred Concerts,” created in the last years of his life. They consist of collections of vocal and instrumental pieces of various sorts, usually tied loosely together by a religious theme. Although these works contain fine moments and have their admirers, they do not, on the whole, succeed. Duke Ellington's legacy is the short jazz works, most of them written between 1926 and 1942: the jungle pieces, like “Black and Tan Fantasy”; the concertos, like “Echoes of Harlem”; the mood pieces, such as “Mood Indigo”; the harmonically complex works, like “Ko-Ko”; and the hard swingers, such as “Cotton Tail.” This work has a rich tonal palette. It uses carefully chosen sounds by his soloists; endless contrast not only of sound but also of mood, mode, key; the use of forms unusual in popular music, like the four-plus-ten bar segment in “Echoes of Harlem”; and deftly handled dissonance, often built around very close internal harmonies. Although Ellington was not a jazz improviser in a class with Armstrong or Charlie Parker, his body of work is far larger than theirs, more varied and richer, and is second to none in jazz. Ellington died in New York City.
- Many Ellington papers and artifacts are housed in the Duke Ellington Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Additional materials are lodged in the Duke Ellington Oral History Project at Yale, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library, and the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers University.
- Ellington, Edward Kennedy. Music Is My Mistress (1973).
- Collier, James Lincoln. Duke Ellington (1987).
- Dance, Stanley. The World of Duke Ellington (1970)
- Ellington, Mercer, with Stanley Dance. Duke Ellington in Person (1978).
- Jewell, Derek. Duke: A Portrait of Duke Ellington (1977)
- Ulanov, Barry. Duke Ellington (1946)
- Aasland, Benny. The “Wax Works” of Duke Ellington (1979– ).
- Bakker, Dick M. Duke Ellington on Microgroove (1972– ).
- Massagli, Luciano, Liborio Pusateri, and Giovanni M. Volonté. Duke Ellington's Story on Records (1967– ).
This entry is taken from the American National Biography and is published here with the permission of the American Council of Learned Societies.Sign up to receive email alerts from African American Studies Center