Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (April 29, 1899 May 24, 1974) was a jazz pianist and band leader, one of the leading figures in the history of the genre, and one of the greatest composers in the history of American music.
He hailed from a middle-class family in Washington, D.C., and learned piano both from lessons and from imitating the ragtime pianists in the community. After attaining modest success in DC as a pianist and jazz band leader, Duke sought the big time by taking his band to New York City, the center of the music world and the most glamorous scene of The Roaring '20s. He first played in the Kentucky Club, then the Cotton Club, honing his songwriting chops and gathering more musicians around him until he was no longer leading a band but an orchestra. During the 1930s and 1940s, as Big Band swing grew in popularity throughout the US and the world, Duke's jazz orchestra became renowned as one of the best.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, big bands and swing precipitously fell out of popularity. note Duke's orchestra was one of the few that managed to stay afloat—and even so, the band mainly survived off the royalties from their prior compositions.
However, soon enough time had passed for the Popularity Polynomial to swing back in Duke's favor, setting the stage for a comeback. At the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, the band's performance of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue"—particularly Paul Gonsalves' 27-chorus saxophone solo in the middle—stirred the crowd to wild dancing, then pandemonium. A month later, Duke's face was on the cover of Time magazine. Duke and his orchestra were now even more renowned than they'd been at the height of the swing era, and this resurgence in popularity lasted until Duke's death in 1974.
During this period, Duke continued to innovate, albeit within the swing idiom, writing new material and rearranging old material to keep it fresh. He incorporated "world music" influences on albums like The Far East Suite and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, and incorporated church music into his Sacred Concert series. At the encouragement of producer Bob Thiele and various labels, Duke teamed up with other big names in jazz—Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach—to record albums.
Throughout his career, Duke sought out what he called "individualists", musicians who weren't just technically proficient with their instrument, but whose playing was one-of-a-kind. (In this regard, he was inspired by the examples of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet—Duke once expressed a desire to have Louis play every instrument for his band, if it were possible.) A few of the individualists who played with Duke were trumpeters James "Bubber" Miley, Cootie Williams, and Ray Nance (who also played violin); trombonists "Tricky Sam" Nanton and Juan Tizol; saxophonists Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, and Paul Gonsalves; bassist Jimmy Blanton; and vocalist Ivie Anderson. Billy Strayhorn was also particularly noteworthy for his serving as the band's secondary pianist and Ellington's partner in songwriting. Ellington and Strayhorn had a knack for writing or arranging songs tailored specifically for the strengths of the musicians; it was noted that musicians tended to play better under Duke than on their own. Ellington's work schedule was also affected because he was almost continuously touring, giving him little time to finish many of the things he started, so he'd get Strayhorn to finish them instead, which Strayhorn was happy to do. Duke also treated his musicians well. He liked to joke "I've discovered a gimmick: I give them money", but he also acted as their promoter, agent, biggest fan and general father figure, and they, in turn, adored him, for the most part. As a result, the musician turnover rate in his orchestra was remarkably low. Consider Cootie Williams, who made his name with Ellington in the '30s but left in 1940, when the band was at the peak of its powers. Ellington's only comment was "He'll be back", and 22 years later, Williams did indeed come back, and stayed until after Ellington's death.
Duke and Strayhorn also composed and performed music for theater and film. The most famous of these soundtracks, Anatomy of a Murder, was notable for being a historic breakthrough—the first African-American compositions used as non-diagetic music in a major Hollywood film.
When asked during his return to fame what was good music, he replied: If it sounds good and feels good, then it IS good! which became known as Duke Ellington's Law.
- Black and Tan Fantasy
- C Jam Blues
- Concerto for Cootie
- I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)
- It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)
- Jack the Bear
- Mood Indigo
- Sepia Panorama
By Billy Strayhorn
- Chelsea Bridge
- Take the "A" Train
By Juan Tizol
- Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band (recorded 1939-1942, released 2003). Collects all of Duke's singles from the period that some scholars consider the band's golden age.
- Duke Ellington at Fargo, 1940 Live (released 1978 with some songs omitted; the complete recording released 1990).
- The Carnegie Hall Concerts: January 1943 (released 1977)
- Ellington at Newport (Complete) (recorded 1956, released 1999).
- Together for the First Time and The Great Reunion (both 1961). Duke's only studio session with Louis Armstrong. Compiled as a single CD The Great Summit: The Master Takes (2001).
- First Time! The Count Meets the Duke (1961) Recorded with Count Basie and his orchestra.
- Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (recorded 1962, released 1963)
- Money Jungle (recorded 1962, released 1963). Recorded with Charles Mingus and Max Roach.
- Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (recorded 1962, released 1963).
- The Far East Suite (recorded 1966, released 1967).
- New Orleans Suite (1970).
Provides examples of:
- Artist and the Band: Early in his career, he performed and recorded as Duke Ellington's Washingtonians, and also put out one album in 1958 as Duke Ellington's Spacemen. But most of the group's career was spent under the more prosaic name Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra.
- The Band Minus the Face:
- Surprisingly, Duke was not initially the leader of the band that he made famous. They were known as the Washingtonians back then, and banjoist Elmer Snowden was the leader. The band sacked Snowden in early 1924 over a financial disagreement, so Duke took his place.
- After Duke's death, his son Mercer took over the band. Mercer died in 1996, but the orchestra is still in the hands of the Ellington family and is still touring and playing.
- Benevolent Boss: Unlike some bandleaders, when he found a good musician he was very reluctant to let them go, and would go to considerable lengths to keep his band happy. When he discovered the great bass player Jimmy Blanton, he hired him even though he already had a bass player, Billy Taylor. Ellington didn't want to upset Taylor, so he never got around to firing him. Taylor eventually left of his own accord, commenting to Duke "I'm not going to stand up there next to that young boy playing all that bass and be embarrassed."
- Cover Album: He recorded jazz versions of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite and Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt Suites. (In the CD era, both of these were packaged with Ellington and Strayhorn's own Suite Thursday for the CD Three Suites.)
- Crossover: His central position in jazz is such that he was probably the only musician who could have recorded (and did record) duet albums with both Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane.
- Dream Team: The Blanton-Webster lineup of 1940-41 is generally regarded as this, with not only Ellington's regular stars such as Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Barney Bigard, Sonny Greer etc. but also bass virtuoso Jimmy Blanton and tenor sax giant Ben Webster. This lineup was captured live on Duke Ellington at Fargo, 1940, a high-quality amateur recording that wasn't commercially released until 1978.
- Epic Rocking:
- Even in the swing era, when the 78 rpm record format put a hard limit on the length of studio recordings, Duke would sometimes record songs that took up both sides of a record—or multiple records. note Then the long-playing record was invented, permitting him to record even longer compositions. The result: Duke's very first studio LP (Masterpieces by Ellington, 1950) consisted of four songs varying from 8 to 15 minutes long and was released in the 12" format, which at the time was mostly reserved for classical music (popular music LPs used the 10" format until the mid-1950s).
- The 1956 Newport performance of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" is about 15 minutes long, most of which is taken up by just Ellington and his rhythm section encouraging tenor sax player Paul Gonsalves into one of the most awesome solos on record.
- Dolled-Up Installment:
- The Far East Suite was inspired by a visit to the Middle East, except for "Isfahan". That one was a reworking an earlier Strayhorn piece, named "Elf".
- Strayhorn's "Pretty Little Girl" was reworked and retitled "Star-Crossed Lovers" so it could be inserted into Such Sweet Thunder.
- I Have Many Names: Over the years, Duke's band went by Duke Ellington's Washingtonians, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, Duke Ellington & His Famous Orchestra, and even one album (The Cosmic Scene, 1958) as Duke Ellington's Spacemen. From 1929 to 1931, Duke's contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company forbid him from releasing music on other labels under his own name, so he used a bunch of pseudonyms to release music on other labels: The Jungle Band, Mills Ten Blackberries, The Harlem Hot Chocolates, The Harlem Footwarmers, Traymore Orchestra, The Hotsy Totsy Gang, The Six Jolly Jesters, and even Earl Jackson & His Musical Champions.
- In the Style of:
[...] I don't want to copy this rhythm or that scale. It's more valuable to have absorbed while there. You let it roll around, undergo a chemical change, and then seep out on paper in the form that will suit the musicians who are going to play it.
- The New Orleans Suite takes influence from the New Orleans jazz sound, with the four "Portrait of..." movements paying tribute to Louis Armstrong, Wellman Braud, Sidney Bechet, and Mahalia Jackson.
- On the other hand, for his other geographically-inspired suites, like The Far East Suite and Latin American Suite, Duke wanted the influence of the local music to be subconscious rather than overt. As he wrote regarding the Far East Suite:
- Jungle Jazz: Duke Ellington and His Orchestra released a number of jazz singles with titles like "Jungle Jamboree", "Echoes of the Jungle", "Jungle Nights in Harlem", "Jungle Blues", and even "The Air-Conditioned Jungle". His album collaboration with Charles Mingus and Max Roach was titled Money Jungle. (Of course, some of those titles blur the line between a literal tropical forest and the "urban jungle".) And when contractual obligations prevented Duke from releasing music under his own name, one alias his group used was The Jungle Band.
- Longest Song Goes Last:
- The Far East Suite ends with "Ad Lib on Nippon" (11:27).
- Pop-Star Composer: Scored Anatomy of a Murder, and also appeared as juke joint pianist Pie-Eye.
- Renaissance Man: As Stephen Lasker wrote, "We may be thankful Ellington selected music as a career, for he was a man of exceptional talent in fields apart from music..." In another universe, he might have been just as successful as a writer, painter, bridge player, or baseball player.
- Signing-Off Catchphrase: "We love you madly", as he'd tell the audience this at the end of every concert.
- Train Song: "Take the 'A' Train."
- Ur-Example: Duke's band may or may not have invented drum solos.Norman Granz: [...] As Ellington proudly (?) states, his was the first band to feature drum solos. I'm not sure that this is completely accurate, but if he wishes to claim this dubious distinction, I'm all for letting him have it.
- With Lyrics: Several tunes started off as instrumentals then were reworked as vocal numbers. Sometimes the name was changed when lyrics were added ("Concerto for Cootie" became "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me", "Never No Lament" became "Don't Get Around Much Anymore", and "C-Jam Blues" became "Duke's Place"), while others kept the same title ("Take the A Train" and "Come Sunday", for example).