This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born on April 29, 1899, in Washington, D.C. Raised by parents who were both talented musicians, Ellington became totally engrossed in music at an early age. Due to his parents’ success, Ellington grew up in a middle-class neighbourhood and began studying music and piano at the age of seven. He was nicknamed “Duke” because of his “gentlemanly ways” when he performed. At the age of 15, Ellington wrote his first composition titled Soda Fountain Rag while working as a soda jerk. His natural talent was obvious, and he was offered a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in New York, which he declined. Instead, Ellington followed his passion for ragtime and began playing professionally at the age of 17.
In the 1920s, Ellington began performing in Broadway nightclubs as the bandleader of a sextet, which eventually grew to a ten piece ensemble. He sought out musicians with unique playing styles, such as Bubber Miley, (who is famous for using a plunger to make the “wah-wah” sound) and Joe Nanton, who first introduced the trombone “growl.” Ellington made hundreds of recordings with his bands, appeared in films, and toured Europe on two occasions in the 1930s.
Ellington’s fame rose significantly in the 1940s when he composed various masterworks, including Concerto for Cootie, KoKo and Cotton Tail. It was Ellington’s “sense of musical drama” that made him stand out. His “blend of melodies, rhythms and subtle sonic movements gave audiences a new experience — complex yet accessible jazz that made the heart swing.”
In the early 1960s, Ellington embraced recording with artists who had been friendly rivals in the past, or were younger musicians who focused on later styles. The Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras recorded together with the album First Time! The Count Meets the Duke (1961). During a period when Ellington was between recording contracts, he made records with Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Max Roach, which produced the Money Jungle (United Artists) album. Duke turned 65 in the spring of 1964, but showed no signs of slowing down as he continued to make vital and innovative recordings, including The Far East Suite (1966), New Orleans Suite (1970) and Latin American Suite (1972), much of it inspired by his world tours. Ellington performed what is considered his final full concert in a ballroom at Northern Illinois University on March 20, 1974.