Duke Ellington

1899 - 1974

Childhood

"Duke" Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 in Washington D.C.. When he was young he wasn't called Duke his given name was Edward Kennedy Ellington.  When he was a teenager his friends noticed that he had good manners and acted like a gentleman so they gave him the nickname, "Duke" (Duke is a title for someone who is royal or related to royalty).

 

Duke's parents James Edward Ellington and Daisy Kennedy Ellington worked hard but earned good livings. They owned their own home in Washington D.C.  His father was a well-respected butler (house manager) for a well known Washington doctor and sometimes worked at the White House. He also ran his own catering business. His mother was a beautiful woman who sometimes worked as a maid. She believed that good manners and proper coat-and-tie dress were very important. 

When he was seven, Duke began learning to play the piano the way his parents did.  Duke was more interested in baseball than playing the piano. Even though he kept learning piano His first job was selling peanuts at Washington Senators baseball games. This job helped him to become more confident.

In 1914, Ellington wrote his first song. He had a job in a café, serving soda, using a soda fountain. His song was called "Soda Fountain Rag". Duke wrote the Soda Fountain Rag by ear because he couldn't read or write music well yet.

 

Duke heard piano playing all over Washington, D.C., in Philadelphia and Atlantic City. He tried to copy the styles he heard. He started to learn about harmony, and learned to read and write music. He started to get jobs playing in cafés and clubs in Washington, D.C.

 

Duke was also a good artist. In 1916 he received a scholarship to study art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in New York City (that means that you can go to school for less money or even for free)  but he decided to concentrate on his music instead.

Duke Ellington Band

In his 20s, Duke started his professional music career. During the day, he had a job painting signs. At night, he played the piano.  He started his first band, "The Duke’s Serenaders". They played in Washington, D.C. and Virginia at dances and parties. 

Duke and his band moved to New York City which was the hotspot for jazz bands and band music. His band grew to ten musicians and were named "The Washingtonians." Duke and the Washingtonians played regularly clubs in Harlem.  In 1927 Ellington and his band landed a permanent spot at the famous Cotton Club. Their popularity grew as the Cotton Club included them on radio broadcasts which made them famous and popular. 

One way that Duke made his orchestra special was by hiring musicians with unique playing styles, such as Bubber Miley, who used a plunger to make the "wa-wa" sound, and Joe Nanton, who gave the world his trombone "growl." Duke made hundreds of recordings with his bands, appeared in films and on radio, and toured Europe twice in the 1930s.

One of the musicians he hired and worked with for the rest of his life was Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn is actually the composer of the song "Take the A Train,"  which became The Duke Ellington Band's signature song. The "A"  is a subway line in New York City which stopped at the Cotton Club in Harlem.

Musical Life

Duke always worked hard to make his music, his piano playing and his band better. He tried to make Jazz songs be longer and more serious and he included classical music in part of his jazz pieces. Duke wrote Jazz versions of both The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky and The Peer Gynt Suite by Grieg.

Duke was also always proud of his family, his home town, his heritage and his color. In a time that people of color were treated poorly, he was a famous musician who demanded to be treated with respect. Duke even rented his own railroad cars so that he and his band could eat and sleep well when they pulled into a town on their tour.

Recognition

Big bands like Duke's stopped being popular in the early 1950s. People still recognized that Duke was a wonderful musician but he didn't have any regular work. Then, in 1956, he was invited to perform at a Jazz Festival. His performance was so amazing that it made international headlines. After that, Duke's music became very popular again.

He wrote music for movies and recorded albums with other famous Jazz musicians. In 1969, He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Richard Nixon. President Nixon threw Duke Ellington a party at The White House to celebrate his 70th birthday.

Duke died at age 75 from lung cancer. 

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