Duke Ellington

An American pianist who was the greatest jazz composer

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"Music is my mistress, and she plays second fiddle to no one."


Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 into a middle-class family in Washington, D.C. with a loving father James Edward Ellington, and mother Daisy Kennedy Ellington. Edward’s father was a blueprint maker of the Navy, and also worked as a caterer and waiter. Edward had one sister, Ruth Ellington who helped with his business affairs later on in life. Duke’s teacher gave up on Duke when he was around 10 about he had liked to experiment with odd sounding chords and sounds on the piano. Duke carried on with piano playing, although most of his playing was self taught. He memorized songs Duke had heard other’s play and started visiting pool halls where many of the best jazz and ragtime pianists played. Before he had graduated high school he discovered that music was his real passion, so he quit his studies of commercial art and went to work as a professional pianist.

Duke and his band had started performing around the Washington area. Both Duke and the members of his band shared a serious attitude and love for performing. Duke treated his band well and paid them generously, and in turn the band rewarded him with dependability and loyalty. In 1922 Duke and his band headed north to New York City’s Harlem. During the beginning Duke and his band had a few arrangements at small clubs that had primarily African American audiences, but their group had moved onto bigger clubs with primarily white audiences. They had begun to call themselves, Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. Duke had received an invitation to perform at the Cotton Club, one of Harlem’s premier nightspots. By the end of the decade Duke and his Orchestra were a sensation across the country.

Duke and his Orchestra had grew tired of performing just at the Cotton Club so he took his Orchestra through a few short but successful tours of the United States and Europe. The 1940’s was the peak for Duke and his Orchestra. Their popularity soared through the United States and even overseas. But jazz had started to decline in popularity. The Orchestra was struggling to keep together due to many unprofitable tours and club dates. The orchestra grew bored and tired of performing, but Ellington launched a comeback. He had started composing more modern jazz pieces to appeal to the public.

From then and until Duke’s death, his Orchestra stayed at the top of the jazz world. Age had started taking it’s tole on the orchestra and the members died or retired. Ellington was diagnosed with lung cancer and refused to receive medical treatment and to slow down on performing. He collapsed on stage January 1974 and he died the spring of that year undergoing treatment for pneumonia.

How did Edward get the nickname,"Duke?"

Edward had been called Duke by a high school friend that thought that he deserved a more fitting nickname because Edward had flawless speech and dressed like royalty.
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Duke and his Orchestra were the first Black jazz band to preform at Carnegie Hall.
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The orchestra's trumpets and trombones used plungers for an affect sounding like an animal growling in their music.
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Duke's first real passion was baseball, but began playing piano. But Duke's piano teacher gave up on him when he was about 10 years old because he experimented with unusual chords and sounds.
Duke Ellington - Live in '58

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