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An introduction to Duke Ellington

Updated on November 1, 2011

Duke Ellington was a composer born in Washington D.C. in 1899. His lively big band's jazz music sums up the phrase: ‘good music never dies’.

Over a century since the musician, whose real name was Edward Kennedy Ellington was born, the music he created with his orchestra is still revered across the globe.

Duke continued making music until his death from cancer in 1974, all the time with a polite respectability which defined his namesake.

As a child Duke was taught the emotional power of music by his parents. Encouraged by Fats Waller, he utilized this in his early piano work, playing the clubs and cafes of Washington.

Renown Jazz Musician Dan Forshaw said that although Duke was a superb pianist his real instrument was his band.

He said that as an artist is able to use shades of colour and light to bring emotion out of a painting, Duke Ellington was able to do similar with his musicians really bringing out the best in each one but without the band ever becoming just a group of individual musicians.

Duke Ellington pictures

Smooth: Duke Ellington playing the piano in the earlier days of his career
Smooth: Duke Ellington playing the piano in the earlier days of his career
Trumpet: A slightly older Duke with Louis Armstrong, right
Trumpet: A slightly older Duke with Louis Armstrong, right

Duke's pioneering talent of being able to add such vibrant depth to music that drew the best musicians of the day to Duke’s orchestra.

Duke famously collaborated with the Louis Armstrong All-stars, and the John Coltrane Quartet. With the latter he produced ‘In a sentimental mood’.

Manager, Irving wells, was instrumental in Duke’s popularity. After spotting Duke’s six piece band playing at sultry nightclubs, he secured a contract with The Cotton Club. It was here that magnificent and memorable shows were broadcast across America, spreading the Duke Wellington ethos and grabbing the attention of the population.

Duke’s ability to move with the times was what enabled the survival of his music. He negotiated the change from twenties hot jazz, to the swing era of the thirties, with ease. Whereas other bands lost contracts, The Duke Wellington orchestra kept recording through the post war depression.

Without Duke Ellington, Jazz as we know it would not exist. For this, The Great Miles Davis says: ‘At least one day out of the year all musicians should just put their instruments down and give thanks to Duke Ellington.’

Video: Duke Ellington - It don't mean a thing


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    • Rickrideshorses profile image

      Rickrideshorses 6 years ago from England

      Yes, Duke Ellington was the real deal and his music is timeless. Even listening to it now it has so much warmth and depth - so much more meaningful than the plastic pop that's produced now.

    • profile image

      femmeflashpoint 6 years ago


      I love Duke Ellington! Not my era, but wow, what an icon from back in the day when "real" music was played, not manufactured.

      Great job on this. :)