Spreading the Jazz

Duke Ellington and his band bring Ragtime to its finest

By: Shannon Malloy and Tina Luong

Early Life

The wonderful jazz legend, Edward Kennedy Ellington (aka. Duke Ellington), was born in a middle class family, Washington D.C, in the year 1899- just about time for the Golden Age for jazz. He grew up with literature, lecture, music, but he peferred art and baseball much better than anything else. While he started playing piano at the age of 7, he decided he didn't like piano and decided to pursue art. However, at the age of 17, Duke Ellington had a withdrawal from art college, and decided to pursue music, teaching himself.


Since he had grown up in a house of the arts, he had been open to music his entire life. One of the popular kinds of music during his childhood was ragtime, which was a huge influence on music several years later. His parents both played piano, which lead to his pursuing of music. When he was a teenager, he got a part-time job in a soda store, which lead him to write his very first song, Soda Fountain Rag, causing him to drop out of art school and start a band.

Time Period

Major things that were happening at this time were:

  • Discrimination against blacks and women was still still going on
  • The Harlem Renaissance (When African American art had it's "Golden Age")
  • Attack on Pearl Harbor
  • Hiroshima and Nagasaki
  • WW2
  • The beginning of the Cold War

His Music

A reason why Duke Ellington was one of the best composers was because the way he composed music. Whenever he would go to write a song, he would have a specific player in mind to highlight their skills in a single piece. Because of this, he had many great musicians join his band, and was a member of the Cotton Club for 3 years. Their main music was of the swing genre and was easy to dance to because of it's jazzy feel. In all, they have played in 65 countries, and have played over 20,000 shows globally. A few of their songs were:

  • Check and Double Check (1930)
  • She's Got Her Man (1935)
  • Murder at the Vanities (1935)
  • Hit Parade (1937)

Interesting Facts

  • His father sometimes worked as a butler in the white house
  • Duke Ellington never learned how to read music
  • His band was often discriminated against
  • He died of lung cancer on May 24, 1974
  • His son, Mercer Ellington continued to lead his band even after Duke's death
  • Received the Presidential award of Freedom
  • Received the French Legion of Honor
  • Has gotten many Grammys