Ian Bradley Duke Ellington biography – full text


By Ian Bradley  

Edward Kennedy (‘Duke’) Ellington was one of the most significant musicians of the 20th Century, an innovative stylist on the piano, composer and leader of his Famous Orchestra for fifty years until his death on 24 May, 1974. 

Born on 29 April 1899 in Washington DC to Daisy Kennedy Ellington and James Edward Ellington, the young Edward acquired the sobriquet ‘Duke’ for his aristocratic bearing and demeanour from a school friend. 

While Ellington grew up in what came to be known as the ‘jazz age’, Duke never cared for the word ‘jazz’ associating it with categories and Ellington held firmly to his belief in aspiring to be ‘beyond category.’ If the word ‘jazz’ meant anything, Ellington said, it meant freedom of expression and this principal along with his life-long religious convictions informed his philosophy and approach to both the life and the work. 

As a young man, he forsook his job as a sign painter and study for a scholarship in art in favour of playing piano, his influences being particularly the school of ‘stride’ piano epitomized by such players as James P. Johnson and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith. His strong percussive style, which sat like a well- sprung parquet floor beneath all his orchestra’s performances, was a crucial part of what his long-time arranging and composing companion Billy Strayhorn called ‘The Ellington Effect’. Ellington’s gift for painting endured throughout his life and this too informed his unique approach to musical composition and the ways in which he drew on the talents of the soloists within his orchestra, writing for specific players. 

The dramatic and colourful scope of Ellington’s writing, with compositions often referred to as ‘tone parallels’ was informed in part also through Ellington having to write for floor shows at The Cotton Club, his nascent Orchestra’s first major engagement in New York City following a residency at The Kentucky Club. Ellington’s initial stay at The Cotton Club, a famous uptown nightclub where black artists performed for an exclusively white audience, lasted from 1927 to 1931, nightly national radio broadcasts from the venue and his burgeoning record career confirming Ellington’s early fame. 

A self-proclaimed ‘primitive’ artist, Ellington said that he made use of those materials nearest to hand. In Duke’s case these were the talents of the musicians such as long time friends Sonny Greer on drums, trumpeter Arthur Whetsel and reed player Otto Hardwick who formed the nucleus of Ellington’s first band. Trumpeter Bubber Miley was the ‘big bang’ of the Ellington universe and Ellington’s relationship with Miley, from which sprang the band’s first theme song East St Louis Toodle–O and classics such as Black and Tan Fantasy, informed the basis of Duke’s approach – composer and catalyst. This style of working relationship endured during this period with other stars in the Ellington firmament such as alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, trumpeter and successor to Miley’s plunger mute ‘growling’ style Cootie Williams, clarinetist Barney Bigard and cornetist Rex Stewart. This approach created the basis of the standards for which Ellington is particularly celebrated and the royalties from which helped to keep the band on the road through the more lean times. This was the period – the 1920s and 1930s – where such enduring songs as Mood Indigo, Sophisticated Lady, Solitude and In A Sentimental Mood were created. 

In 1939, a young pianist and classical scholar, William Thomas Strayhorn auditioned for Duke backstage at The Stanley Theatre in his hometown of Pittsburgh. As a teenager, Billy Strayhorn had already composed Lush Life, which was to become one of the most popular and enduring classics of the great American songbook. Strayhorn joined the Ellington aggregation firstly as a lyricist, then arranger and composer whose work blended seamlessly with Ellington’s own. Some years after Ellington had composed It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing, popular music finally caught up with Ellington’s innovations and when Strayhorn joined the organisation the dance band era was in full swing. Billy wrote what became, and stayed for the duration of Ellington’s life, the new theme of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and perhaps the anthem of what was known as The Swing Era, Take The ‘A’ Train. During this same period, Ellington added a tenor saxophone to the reed section, the unique Ben Webster and a young musician joined the ranks who brought great innovation to the double bass, Jimmie Blanton. For many admirers of Duke Ellington’s music, ‘The Blanton-Webster Band’ rates as Ellington’s finest hour, going into the recording studio and laying down one stone-cold classic after another: Jack The Bear, Ko-ko, Sepia Panorama, Harlem Airshaft. 

Beyond the confines of the three-minute dance record, the creative partnership of Ellington and Strayhorn perhaps reached its apotheosis in the years following the end of the Second World War. Ellington and Strayhorn created many superb concert-length pieces in the late 1940s as the dancehall gave way to the concert arena. Ellington himself had already shown the way with his masterpiece Black, Brown and Beige which he called ‘a tone parallel to the history of the American Negro’ and which received its official première at Carnegie Hall, New York in January 1943. Thereafter, Duke Ellington and his Orchestra played Carnegie Hall annually throughout the 1940s, Ellington and Strayhorn creating pieces which, if not ‘serious music’ was music which certainly repaid serious attention such as The Perfume Suite, The Deep South Suite, New World A-Comin’, The Symphomaniac and The Tattooed Bride. 

They were hard times for the big bands as the flame of the Swing Era guttered and all but burnt out in the early fifties. Ellington lost key men Billy Strayhorn and Johnny Hodges for a while – Tricky Sam Nanton, the plunger trombonist had died and Ellington’s drumming man from the beginning, Sonny Greer left. If Ellington’s band ever had a tendency to sound like all the other big bands, then this was the period that happened, yoked to an unsatisfactory contract with Capitol Records. The sound of Capitol Records’ Melrose Studios was superb but high fidelity recreations of former glories was not how Ellington rolled. The itinerary was running on empty and the low point must have been playing for the swimmers at Billy Rose’s Aquacade. 

A renaissance, however, was just around the corner. Hodges and Strayhorn returned. Tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves’s barnstorming twenty-seven choruses on the old Ellington classic Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue at The Newport Jazz Festival 1956 saw the Ellington band renew itself in the public consciousness with an incendiary live performance which formed the basis of Duke’s best selling album, Ellington at Newport. Classic albums – the Shakespearean suite Such Sweet Thunder, a studio recording of Ellington and Strayhorn’s revolutionary television musical which told the history of jazz, A Drum Is A Woman, the album of music the duo had written for the movie Anatomy of a Murder followed. Ellington was back and roaring across all six continents. 

In the 1960s, the world became Duke’s oyster. In addition to frequent visits to continental Europe and the UK, he undertook a State Department sponsored tour of the Middle East in 1963, visited Japan in 1964 and participated in The First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar in 1966. Into the 1970s, the Orchestra also visited Poland, the USSR and Ethiopia, inspiring such significant works as the composition La Plus Belle Africaine and albums such as The Far East Suite and The Latin American Suite. 

As the thirst for social change became ever more apparent at home with the rise of the civil rights movement, Ellington, who had made significant contributions throughout his artistic life to what he termed demands for ‘social significance’ with works, for example, such as the revue Jump For Joy in 1941 which addressed issues of race directly, worked with Strayhorn to produce a stage show designed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation proclamation. The show called My People debuted in 1963 and included the composition King Fit The Battle of Alabam, a striking tribute to the leader of the civil rights movement Dr Martin Luther King Jr. 

Ellington’s faith also came to the fore in his music.  Having first been invited to put together a Sacred Concert for performance at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco in 1965, what Ellington called “the most important thing I have ever done”, was followed by two subsequent concerts of newly created Sacred Music.   

Even Ellington could not defy gravity forever. Billy Strayhorn was lost to cancer in 1967, Johnny Hodges died in 1970. Ellington kept going but the road was taking its toll. Even as the band began to break up and finding new personnel willing to stay the course was a challenge, there were more than moments of brilliance and beauty, however – The New Orleans Suite, The Afro- Eurasian Eclipse and Ellington’s Third Sacred Concert. Ellington was performing, making, writing music to the last which came as a result of complications from lung cancer and pneumonia on 24, May 1974. His extended work The River, written for a ballet in 1970 is prophetic. Musicians have continued to return to the source and Ellington’s music in all its protean glory continues to renew and refresh itself, ever finding new audiences.