Biography of Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington, by the time of his passing, was considered
amongst the world's greatest composers and musicians. The French
government honored him with their highest award, the Legion of Honor,
while the government of the United States bestowed upon him the
highest civil honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He played for
the royalty and for the common people and by the end of his fifty-year
career, he had played over 20,000 performances worldwide.
Duke Ellington - Edward Kennedy Ellington - was born into the
world on April 28, 1899 in Washington, D.C. Duke's parents Daisy
Kennedy Ellington and James Edward Ellington served as ideal role
models for young Duke and taught him everything from proper table
manners to an understanding of the emotional power of music. Duke's
first piano lessons came around the age of seven or eight and appeared
to not have that much lasting effect upon him. It seemed as if young
Duke was more inclined to baseball at a young age. Duke got his first
job selling peanuts at Washington Senator's baseball games. This was
the first time Duke was placed as a "performer" for a crowd and had to
first get over his stage fright. At the age of fourteen, Duke began
sneaking into Frank Holliday's poolroom. His experiences from the
poolroom taught him to appreciate the value in mixing with a wide
range of people. As Duke's piano lessons faded into the past, Duke
began to show a flare for the artistic. Duke attended Armstrong Manual
Training School to study commercial art instead of an
academically-oriented school. Duke began to seek out and listen to
ragtime pianists in Washington and during the summers, where he and
his mother vacationed in Philadelphia or Atlantic City. While
vacationing in Asbury Park, Duke heard of a hot pianist named Harvey
Brooks. At the end of his vacation Duke sought Harvey out in
Philadelphia where Harvey showed Duke some pianistic tricks and
shortcuts. Duke later recounted that, "When I got home I had a real
yearning to play. I hadn't been able to get off the ground before, but
after hearing him I said to myself, 'Man you're going to have to do
it.'" Thus the music career of Duke Ellington was born
Duke was taken under the wings of Oliver "Doc" Perry and Louis
Brown who taught Duke how to read music and helped improve his overall
piano playing skills. Duke found piano playing jobs at clubs and cafes
throughout the Washington area. Three months shy of graduation, Duke
dropped out of school and began his professional music career. In late
1917, Duke formed his first group: The Duke's Serenaders.
Between 1918 and 1919, Duke made three significant steps towards
independence. First, he moved out of his parents' home and into a home
he bought for himself. Second, Duke became his own booking agent for
his band. By doing so, Ellington's band was able to play throughout
the Washington area and into Virginia for private society balls and
embassy parties. Finally, Duke married Edna Thompson and on March 11,
1919, Mercer Kennedy Ellington was born.
In 1923, Duke left the security that Washington offered him and
moved to New York. Through the power of radio, listeners throughout
New York had heard of Duke Ellington, making him quite a popular
musician. It is also in that year that Duke made his first recording.
Ellington and his renamed band, The Washingtonians, established
themselves during the prohibition era by playing at places like the
Exclusive Club, Connie's Inn, the Hollywood Club (Club Kentucky),
Ciro's, the Plantation Club, and most importantly the Cotton Club.
Thanks to the rise in radio receivers and the industry itself, Duke's
band was broadcast across the nation live on "From the Cotton Club."
The band's music along with their popularity spread rapidly.
In 1928, Ellington and Irving Mills signed an agreement in which
Mills produced and published Ellington's music. Recording companies
like Brunswick, Columbia, and Victor came calling. Duke's band became
the most sought after band in the United States and even throughout
the world. Some of Ellington's greatest works include, Rockin' in
Rhythm, Satin Doll, New Orleans, A Drum is a Women, Take the "A"
Train, Happy-Go-Lucky Local, The Mooche, and Crescendo in Blue. Duke
Ellington and his band went on to play everywhere from New York to New
Deli, Chicago to Cairo, and Los Angeles to London. Ellington and his
band played with such greats as Miles Davis, Cab Calloway, Dizzy
Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, and Louis Armstrong. They
entertained everyone from Queen Elizabeth II to President Nixon.
Before passing away in 1974, Duke Ellington wrote and recorded
hundreds of musical compositions, all of which continue to have a
lasting effect upon people worldwide for a long time to come.