Composer, bandleader, and pianist Duke Ellington rates as one of the most original and important figures in 20th century American music. He came of age at the dawning of jazz in the 1920s and along with Louis Armstrong, George Gershwin, and Bessie Smith, propelled the genre into its rightful place as a "national treasure. Ellington's career lasted over fifty years and played a large part in the evolution of jazz. During that time his creative output was huge and varied. He consistently straddled the line between commercial and artistic achievement and challenged listeners with an expressive and sophisticated collection of works, often drawing comparisons to classical music. Moreover, he helped define the African-American experience through his art.
Edward Kennedy "Duke Ellington was born in Washington D.C. on April 29, 1899. His parents provided a modest middle class upbringing with an emphasis on proper manners and moral education. Duke grew up pampered with a sense of self-importance (his nickname Duke reflected such pretension). The Ellington home sported two pianos and young Duke was coaxed with lessons, but he took more to playing baseball and studying the visual arts instead. It wasn't until his early teens that he avidly began soaking up ragtime and blues, visiting the local poolroom and burlesque shows and picking up on the tricks of other piano players.
His interest in music now piqued, Duke was impressed by Harlem stride piano, began studying the rolls of James P. Johnson and was promptly writing his own compositions. By 1918 music was still a close second to a career in commercial art as he now had married Edna Thompson and a baby was on the way. Ellington continued to take regular gigs around Washington, making a name for himself at society balls and embassy parties. New York City beckoned in 1923.
Ellington went from a sideman to taking helm of a band called the Washingtonians within a year. He was ardently networking, auditioning songs for music publishers, and performing. The Hollywood Club, which became Club Kentucky in 1924 hired the Washingtonians as their dance band for the next four years. Aside from his bandleader and piano duties Duke was delving into composing and arranging new material to keep things fresh. He had an innate ability to choose musicians for their distinctiveness and spirit, including soulful trumpeter James Miley.
Duke's career began its true ascent upon taking up residence at Harlem's Cotton Club from 1927 to 1931. There were constant pressures to perform new music for dance routines and theatrical pieces, plus radio broadcasts and supporting other acts. Duke rose to the challenges, bolstering his band to a 12-piece and fully applying his compositional and orchestration skills. With the immensity of such an output came a Victor recording contract and critical acclaim as the pre-eminent African-American jazz band of its day.
With such prominent exposure Duke and band embarked on a series of successful tours. As the swing craze fired up Duke countered with crowd pleasing dance pieces. He brought vocalists into the fold, devised spots for soloists to shine, and pointed the band towards a popular song repertoire. This period produced some of Duke's most memorable songs including "Mood Indigo, "The Mooche, Diga Diga Do, and "Black and Tan Fantasy.
It also marked the creative fulcrum of Ellington's compositional skills. Pieces were fueled with imaginative effects and unconventional harmonic sequences. He was not content to be labeled a jazz artist and his dense textures and experimentalism reveal attempts to break out of typical jazz molds. Duke's compositions merged tone poems, enterprising program music, mini-concertos for soloists, novelty numbers, blues, and sketches of New Orleans style or stride. His serious intentions were already creating ambitious pieces of eight or ten minutes in length even before the advent of long-playing records.
Ellington's sound took on a richer, more artistic bent when composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn became a collaborator in 1939. Strayhorn's lavish harmonies and moody textures were the ideal complement to Ellington's vision. Together they would compose or collaborate on more than two hundred pieces for the next three decades. Strayhorn's composition, "Take the A Train, became Duke's signature piece and as partners they reshaped jazz into high art.
The early 1940s were a particularly fruitful period for Ellington, helping produce the theatrical revue, Jump for Joy, previewing his extended work on African-American racial issues, Black, Brown and Beige, at Carnegie Hall, and recording some of his finest and most complex music. The ambitiousness and scope of Black, Brown and Beige garnered comparisons to classical music and Ellington was being cited as a talented composer and not just an entertainer. Though it wasn't completely successful, it showed Ellington trying to break free of the confines of twelve-bar blues and thirty-two-bar forms and be taken on a more serious, artistic level.
Ellington would continue to pursue extended compositions in jazz with such works as The Deep South Suite, The Perfume Suite, and The Liberian Suite during this decade. By the late 1940s swing music was fading in the light of more progressive jazz styles. The demands of keeping a big band on the road and departure of some of Duke's pivotal musicians, including his greatest star Johnny Hodges, also contributed to a career low point in the early to mid-50s, though he continued recording and touring. Duke was content to revisit his earlier jazz styles and mostly shunned the new jazz trends.
In 1956 Ellington's band played the Newport Jazz Festival and enthralled the audience with a thunderous version of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue." It was a groundbreaking performance featuring an inspired 27 chorus solo by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves. Praise was unanimous and Duke was back in the spotlight. He rode out the remainder of the '50s reinvigorated with cultural projects like the recording Such Sweet Thunder and the 1957 television score, A Drum Is a Woman, as well as film scores.
Duke Ellington's legacy in American music is unrivalled. Since his death in 1974 recognition of his many achievements has steadily grown. The vastness and depth of his recordings is bewildering. Ellington's talents were multi-fold, as a composer, band leader, arranger, pianist, and interpreter of African-American history and culture. Like any great artist, his creative output endures and will continue to be evaluated for many years to come.