Duke Ellington

By Noah Evans

Early Life

Edward "Duke" Ellington was born in Northwest Washington DC on April 29, 1899. His parents were both musicians, as his mother played parlor songs and his father played arias. An aria is a piece of music that is played with only one instrument; they are usually made as part of a bigger piece of music. An aria of the Harlem Renaissance can be compared with something like a guitar solo today.

Ellington didn't do much with music in his childhood. At age 17, he started taking piano lessons. Ellington wrote his first piece, Soda Fountain Rag, while working as a soda fountain operator at The Poodle Dog Cafe. He learned how to read and write sheet music at age 18 when he started watching ragtime pianists. He was taught better piano skills when he finally got to meet a pianist after one of their shows.

Ellington started working as a sign painter from age 20; he would usually paint signs for dances and parties. After perfecting his piano playing, Ellington would ask his clients if they had anyone employed for music at their parties. If not, then he offered to play for them. He made extra money by entertaining the guests.

Once Ellington moved out of his parent's home, he formed a jazz band comprised of his friends and a drummer he had met after a performance that had recently left his old band. "The Duke's Serenaders," as they were called, played all around DC and Virginia in parties and weddings until they became famous within the state. This was the beginning of the famous musician, Duke Ellington.

Musical Career

Ellington's band moved to New York and became part of the Harlem Renaissance. They didn't find much success there though, so they sadly came back to DC.

The band soon got letters from one of the best clubs in Harlem, and they quickly moved into the Hollywood Club where they were loved by many. After a fire, the band, now called The Washingtonians, renamed the Hollywood Club to the Kentucky Club.

Ellington released eight records in this time, and was widely known as the leader of a unique jazz band that played in the prestigious Kentucky Club.

From there, the leader of The Washingtonians moved across the country, performing in various clubs on the piano.

Ellington left the club scene during the Second World War. Once the war ended, people flocked more towards artists like Frank Sinatra, as Ellington had lost his touch.

Ellington saw career revival when he attended the National Jazz Festival in 1956. This introduced him to a new generation of fans to play for.

With this new audience, Ellington started recording film soundtracks. His most recognized work was that of Anatomy of a Murder. Film historians credit this as one of the first prominent film soundtrack composed by an African American.

Ellington was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in music, but did not win. He later received an award in 1999, 25 years after his death. He received many lifetime awards that he will sadly never hear about since almost all of his major recognition happened postmortem.

Billy Taylor, Duke Ellington and Willie the Lion
The above video is clip of Duke Ellington, (closest) Willie "The Lion" Smith, (middle) and Louis Taylor, (furthest) playing the piece Perdido on an episode of the David Frost Show.

This is considered one of Ellington's finer performances, and I thought it would be nice to include since it gives you a strong representation of Ellington's work.

Comparison Between Past and Modern Day

Duke Ellington reminded me of an artist present throughout the 2000's, Fall Out Boy. This band went through a similar pattern that Duke Ellington went through. They had a distinct sound in their early days, around 2003-2004. They had a breakup in 2007, similar to Ellington's rise and fall from fame after performing in clubs. Fall Out Boy made a surprising return in 2009 releasing a new album that had a different tone and style then anything else they released. Many of their old fans left, as new ones arrived. The band is still seeing new fans today as their style is constantly changing. Duke Ellington was a lot like this in the sense that he had a new style and new fans after his return to the top. The obviously both never played the same type of music, but they sure had the same career patterns.