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Duke Ellington

Updated on December 1, 2016

Duke Ellington (1899-1974) was an American jazz composer, orchestra leader, and pianist, who created the single most durable body of original jazz compositions and shaped the most distinctive and resourceful large jazz orchestra.

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, D.C., on April 29, 1899. He was the son of a butler, who later became a Navy blueprint maker. Ellington began studying piano at the age of six. He also revealed a pronounced talent in the graphic arts and, after graduating from high school, was awarded a scholarship to Pratt Institute, a technological school in Brooklyn, New York. But Ellington chose music, and by 1918 he was a successful band leader in Washington. He was unsuccessful, however, in his first efforts to move his base of operations to New York City, but in 1923 he formed an orchestra there and gradually established himself.

His popularity became international. He died in New York City on May 24, 1974.

Duke Ellington's Music

Ellington wrote diversely evocative popular songs, and many of them-including Solitude, Sophisticated Lady, and Mood Indigo-became standard favorites in the repertoires of dance orchestras. He was also one of the first jazz writers to work in longer forms, which could not be accommodated on one side' of a 10-inch, 78-rpm recording. Starting with Creole Rhapsody (1931) and Reminiscing in Tempo (1933), he explored the possibilities of extended form in jazz. Among his more notable achievements in this vein are Black, Brown and Beige, Deep South Suite, Harlem, New World A-Comin', and Such Sweet Thunder, which was inspired by Shakespeare. Such Sweet Thunder, as well as many other Ellington compositions, was written in collaboration with Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967). Strayhorn, an associate of. Ellington from 1939, acted as the Duke's musical alter ego. Although Ellington was a strikingly impressive pianist, it was soon recognized that his primary instrumental expression was his orchestra. His scoring of his own orchestral works was characterized by a richness and subtlety of textures approached by no other arranger of jazz music.

He preferred to write for the particular strengths of each of his musicians, many of whom were acknowledged jazz instrumental virtuosos. A number of his key musicians remained with him for long periods, sometimes for decades. This phenomenon, unique among jazz groups, provided Ellington with a long-standing knowledge of the strengths of specific interpreters of his music, an advantage not available to most composers who write for large orchestras.

By the time he was 50, Ellington had earned so much money from royalties on his compositions that he could have withdrawn from the strenuous traveling that is required to keep a jazz orchestra together, but he preferred to maintain his orchestra so that he could hear his music performed as soon as it was written. Ellington's commitment to music was nearly total. When he was not performing, he was composing, during the long, hard road trips or during his brief stays at home in New York City.

Ellington considered his music both a personal chronicle and a continuation and reaffirmation of the musical heritage of the American Negro. In 1965, when the Pulitzer advisory board rejected the suggestion of its music jury that a special citation be given to him, Ellington's response was characteristically urbane and ironic: "Fate," the 66-year-old composer said; "doesn't want me to be too famous too young,'


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