Sunday, 5 April 2015

E is for Ellington

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was one of the most prolific jazz musicians of all time, and widely considered to be a pivotal figure in jazz history.  Born in 1899 in Washington DC to musician parents, he earned the nickname "Duke" from one of his childhood friends who was impressed by his dapper bearing. Although he began piano lessons at the age of 7, he preferred baseball; it wasn't until he turned 14 and began sneaking into Frank Holiday's Poolroom to listen to the piano performers that he began taking his music studies seriously.

After high school he began to play in clubs, turning down a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in order to bolster his passion.  He soon assembled groups for playing at dances and parties throughout the Washington DC and Virginia area.  His band thrived as they played for both white and Afro-American audiences, which was a rarity for that time.

In the early 1920s he made the decision to move to New York City, where he found the competitive jazz scene difficult to break into.  Despite the initial difficulties, Duke eventually landed a contract at a well-to-do club in Harlem where he and his group made their first recordings.  Then an agreement with agent-publisher Irving Mills enabled Duke to record sessions on almost every record label of the time, and soon garnered regular bookings at Harlem's famous Cotton Club.

The Depression hit the recording industry hard but Duke persevered by performing in England and Europe.  Competition intensified as the swing dance became popular. The band adapted, but as Duke himself said "jazz is music, swing is business".  He started splitting up his now 15-member orchestra into smaller groups to record certain styles and feature certain soloists.  This helped to further the careers of many players who were associated with him.

During and after the years of World War II he continued to play with small groups, seeking to break out of the so-called "3 minute limit" for tunes and weathering the shifts in popular musical style.  By the late 1950s he was seen as being outmoded but his reputation fortunately didn't suffer as greatly as many others' did.  A performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 introduced him to a new generation of fans, and let to Ellington gracing the cover of Time Magazine.  Unfortunately his hope that television would give him a new outlet for his music was not fulfilled.

In the 1960s he was performing all over the world and made recordings with many popular artists from Louis Armstrong to Frank Sinatra.  He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Music (he didn't win) and the piano at which he composed many of his pieces was showcased at the Smithsonian Institute.  He continued to perform and compose until his death in 1974.  Numerous memorials have been dedicated to him and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Below is one of my favourite Ellington pieces.
Take the A Train


  1. What a wonderful recap of his life. And now I have Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke" running through my head.

  2. I had heard of Duke Ellington and knew he was a jazz musician but never knew much else about him. It sounds like he had a very interesting life, and was very talented!