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The famous U.S. jazz musician known as “Duke” Ellington was born on April 29, 1989 to two musician parents who both played the piano. His legal name at birth was Edward Kennedy Ellington, and the nickname Duke was one he acquired from childhood friends who believed that the way he dressed and the manner in which he carried himself gave him a regal appearance. (Wikipedia, 2013).
While he himself eschewed the use of the term jazz to define the kind of music he played, opting instead to refer to it as simply “American music,” critics have repeatedly identified him as one of the seminal figures in the development of jazz, which is often identified as one of the few authentically U.S.-developed musical forms. (Biography, 2013).
Ellington was an African-American and his maternal grandmother was an ex-slave. His own introduction to music in a formal sense occurred when he was seven years old, with him commencing piano lessons. His passion for music was intense, even during his youth and he is recorded as having written his first song, :Soda Fountain Rag,” which some called “Poodle Dog Rag,” in 1914 at a time when he was personally working at a soda fountain at a restaurant known as the Poole Dog Cafe. At the time, his formal music training did not include the reading and writing of music notes on paper. He was to develop those skills later in life. (Wikipedia, 2013).
As a young man, in addition to the restaurant job, he worked at the games of the Washington, D.C. Senator’s baseball team as a peanut vendor. Other recreations included playing pool, and it was there that he encountered many contemporary piano players who provided entertainment there, utilizing a variety of styles, including ragtime. It was only then that he started to entertain the notion that he might himself become a professional musician. Ellington himself described both his early life and his musical career in an autobiography he published in 1973 entitled “Music is my Mistress.” (Ellington, 1976).
By the summer of 1916, he declined to pursue an offered scholarship to study art in Brooklyn, New York at the Pratt Institute, preferring instead to provide musical entertainment in various small venues in and around Washington, D.C. for money, although the amounts earned were relatively meager compared to the success he was to experience later in life. He continued, for a time, to attend commercial art classes at the Armstrong Manual Training School, but abandoned those studies a mere 90 day or so before a scheduled graduation. (Ellington, 1976).
It was after that occurred that he summoned up the courage to assemble small groups of musicians to band together to play for dances and other social events, while working on the side as a sign painter to augment his otherwise meager income. His first more permanent formal band was formed in 1917 and was known as “The Duke’s Serenaders,” who were described as “Colored Syncopators” in an ad he took out in the then relatively new media of the local telephone directory. (Ellington, 1976)
Because Washington, D.C. was the capitol of the U.S., Ellington also managed to survive economically in those early years by working as a messenger for the State Department and U.S. Navy. Later, his band would become quite a local hit playing at parties put on by foreign embassies located in the capitol as well as for society dances and balls. While this was an era where there was still much segregation in the U.S., his group did manage to play to both white and African-American audiences, which was unusual at the time. (Wikipedia, 2013).
Ellington got married on July 2, 1918 to Edna Thompson, who had attended the same high school as he did, and they had a son, Mercer Kennedy Ellington, himself a musician skilled in the use of both the piano and trumpet, who at times operated as the business manager for his father’s more successful group while also running his own band. (Wikipedia, 2013).
Looking back on his career, which only ended with his death on May 24, 1974 from lung cancer and pneumonia, music critics widely agree that his influence helped raise the regard of jazz among other forms of music in the U.S. At the time of his death, despite his advanced age and ill health, he was continuing to actively work as an orchestra leader. He did not exclusively play jazz. however, and at times delved into the areas of classical, popular, gospel and blues music, as well as composing scores for popular motion pictures. As the U.S. recording industry took off, Ellington and his groups recorded music for many companies, while continuing to tour widely and play live. In 1924 alone, Duke Ellington released eight records, indicating the beginning of a very fertile period for him that continued almost unabated until his death. (Wikipedia, 2013).
Ellington became a seminal figure in the so-called Harlem Renaissance and gradually expanded the size of his musical group, with it becoming the house band in the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem, New York in 1927. Ellington’s fame grew and he was widely known for playing the bugle at the end of many performances. Radio broadcasts of his music live from the club helped him develop an audience that stretched nationwide and encompassed many people who had never seen him perform live in New York. (Biography, 2013).
A song that Duke Ellington recorded with his orchestra and Adelaide Hall in the fall of 927, entitled “Creole Love Call” became a runaway hit, selling widely through the world, and firmly establishing Ellington and his group as star musicians. (Wikipedia, 2013)
Ultimately, Ellington became perhaps best known for expanding the concept of the small jazz band, playing only in tiny nightclubs, to a full big band experience, with his group becoming a full orchestra with him as the leader. The size and scope of the group gave Ellington much more latitude to experiment with new musical pathways and attempt things never tried before. (Wikipedia, 2013).
His versatility was shown by the fact that he recorded for numerous recording labels, often at the same time, an unusual thing. He sometimes would create different versions of the same compositions for inclusion on records for the different companies. (Wikipedia, 2013).
He obtained even broader popularity after appearing at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival, where his orchestra’s performance was met by the audience’s passionate acclaim, and went on long as the festival organizers had planned to shut things down. The result was worldwide frenzied publicity, including Duke Ellington’s appearance on the front cover of Time magazine, and Ellington’s best-selling recording of his entire career, “Ellington at Newport.”(Wikipedia, 2013).
One area where he experienced a rare lack of success was his inability to breakthrough in the new medium of television, where jazz was somewhat ignored as a form of music. But both his live performances and his popular recordings continued throughout his life. His musical career spanned the Great Depression, the Second World War, the 1950’s, the turbulent 1960’s with the explosion of the civil rights movement and the conflict over the Vietnam war, and the Watergate Era of Richard Nixon. Throughout those changing times, Duke Ellington’s commitment to experiment with his music and burst through staid conventions of form and length remained the one constant thing, raising the standard high for other jazz musicians to try to emulate. Critics believe that there are few, if any, figures in the development of American jazz more important and more central than Duke Ellington. (Wikipedia, 2013).
Ellington’s root strength was as a skilled jazz pianist, but he is often more remembered for his orchestral arrangements and composing of both jazz and other popular musical pieces. His group for the bulk of his career was known simply as the Duke Ellington Orchestra and it continues to tour the world today under the aegis of his son, who serves as the archivist for his father’s rich legacy. (Wikipedia, 2013).
Duke Ellington’s contributions to American music were recognized by no fewer than twelve Grammy awards, starting with his first one in 1959 with three awards for music he composed and performed for “Anatomy of a Murder,” a major motion picture. He composed and performed music for a number of other motion pictures. Most of these awards, however, were for jazz performances and compositions, with three of the awards given after his death, including the last one in 1999 for the historical jazz album “The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition,” collecting the recordings he made for the RCA Victor company from 1927-1973. He received a special Grammy Lifetime Achievement award in 1966. (Biography, 2013).
Nine of his recordings were also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, starting with “Black and Tan Fantasy” in 1928 and concluding with “Far East Suite” in 1967. His 1932 jazz hit “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” was also inducted, was highly popular worldwide, and is still widely played today. He was also given a Special Citation by the Pulitzer Prize Committee after his death, and received a U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969. He was also inducted into the French Legion of Honor in 1973. (Wikipedia, 2013).
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