Duke Ellington

(20th-century-United States)

Born: April 29, 1899, Washington, D.C.
Died: May 24, 1974, New York, New York


In his own words . . .

"The word 'improvisation' has great limitations, because when musicians are given solo responsibility they already have a suggestion of a melody written for them, and so before they begin they already know more or less what they are going to play. Anyone who plays anything worth hearing knows what he's going to play, no matter whether prepared a day ahead or a beat ahead. It has to be with intent."

African-American composer, pianist, and bandleader. Ellington was one of the leading figures in American jazz, and created a unique, recognizable style.

It is virtually impossible to separate Duke Ellington from the band that he led, for it was both the central vehicle for his career and, in many ways, an extension of himself. At the same time, Ellington was a strong individual force in the world of jazz—its most prolific creator (with more than 2000 pieces of various kinds to his name) and a source of inspiration for many generations.

Ellington began piano study at the age of seven and, in his twenties, had begun playing in clubs in New York with a group called the Washingtonians. From 1923 to 1927, the band enlarged, adding players—such as trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, and drummer Sonny Greer—who would become an integral part of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. From 1927 to 1931, the band played at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem and was joined by more key players—clarinetist Barney Bigard, saxophonist Johnny Hodges, and trumpeter Cootie Williams. Ellington wrote a great deal of music for the band, including one of his most famous pieces, Mood Indigo (1930).

In 1932, Ellington began touring the country with the band—now the Duke Ellington Orchestra—and over the years it became a mainstay of Big Band music. He continued to write for the band, and was joined in 1939 by Billy Strayhorn, with whom Ellington had a remarkable collaborative relationship. Ellington also began to go beyond the limits of the traditional jazz band in his compositions. From 1943 to 1952, he produced a series of annual concerts at Carnegie Hall, inaugurating it with his "tone parallel" Black, Brown, and Beige. This was one of many works that combined the larger structures of concert music with the materials of pure jazz. Ellington's music also reached beyond the traditional venues of club and concert hall. He wrote music for films (most notably Otto Preminger's 1959 Anatomy of a Murder), and in the last decade of his life, he wrote liturgical and concert music for the church, combining voice and dance with the music of his band.

Although Ellington was a fine (and often underrated) pianist, his real instrument was his orchestra. Unlike most writers, however, who write for the instruments, Ellington wrote for the players themselves. Each player had his own sound, from Harry Carney's vibrato-rich baritone saxophone to the stratospheric shouts of Cat Anderson's trumpet. And Ellington arranged his music with just these sounds in mind; so much so that a change in personnel often necessitated a change in the arrangement. Ellington stands out for his rich and adventurous approach to harmony and scoring and his experiments in larger forms. At the same time, he contributed some of the most memorable tunes of the jazz repertoire, with ballads such as Sophisticated Lady and Prelude to a Kiss and up-tempo songs such as I'm Beginning to See the Light and Satin Doll. His impact on the world of jazz and on American music was remarkable.