By Frank Gray
By the time of his passing, he was considered amongst the worlds greatest
composers and musicians. The French government honored him with their highest
award, the Legion of Honor, while the government of the United States bestowed
upon him the highest civil honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He played
for the royalty and for the common people and by the end of his fifty-year
career, he had played over 20,000 performances worldwide. He was the Duke,
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born into the world on April 28, 1899 in
Washington, D.C. Dukes parents Daisy Kennedy Ellington and James Edward
Ellington served as ideal role models for young Duke and taught him everything
from proper table manners to an understanding of the emotional power of music.
Dukes first piano lessons came around the age of seven or eight and appeared
to not have that much lasting effect upon him. It seemed as if young Duke was
more inclined to baseball at a young age. Duke got his first job selling peanuts
at Washington Senators baseball games. This was the first time Duke was
placed as a “performer” for a crowd and had to first get over his
stage fright. At the age of fourteen, Duke began sneaking into Frank Hollidays
His experiences from the poolroom taught him to appreciate the value in
mixing with a wide range of people. As Dukes piano lessons faded into the
past, Duke began to show a flare for the artistic. Duke attended Armstrong
Manual Training School to study commercial art instead of an
academically-oriented school. Duke began to seek out and listen to ragtime
pianists in Washington and during the summers, where he and his mother
vacationed in Philadelphia or Atlantic City. While vacationing in Asbury Park,
Duke heard of a hot pianist named Harvey Brooks. At the end of his vacation Duke
sought Harvey out in Philadelphia where Harvey showed Duke some pianistic tricks
and shortcuts. Duke later recounted that, “When I got home I had a real
yearning to play. I hadnt been able to get off the ground before, but after
hearing him I said to myself, Man youre going to have to do it.”
Thus the music career of Duke Ellington was born.
Duke was taken under the wings of Oliver “Doc” Perry and Louis
Brown who taught Duke how to read music and helped improve his overall piano
playing skills. Duke found piano playing jobs at clubs and cafes throughout the
Washington area. Three months shy of graduation, Duke dropped out of school and
began his professional music career.
In late 1917, Duke formed his first group: The Dukes Serenaders. Between
1918 and 1919, Duke made three significant steps towards independence. First, he
moved out of his parents home and into a home he bought for himself. Second,
Duke became his own booking agent for his band. By doing so, Ellingtons band
was able to play throughout the Washington area and into Virginia for private
society balls and embassy parties. Finally, Duke married Edna Thompson and on
March 11, 1919, Mercer Kennedy Ellington was born.
In 1923, Duke left the security that Washington offered him and moved to New
York. Through the power of radio, listeners throughout New York had heard of
Duke Ellington, making him quite a popular musician. It is also in that year
that Duke made his first recording. Ellington and his renamed band, The
Washingtonians, established themselves during the prohibition era by playing at
places like the Exclusive Club, Connies Inn, the Hollywood Club (Club
Kentucky), Ciros, the Plantation Club, and most importantly the Cotton Club.
Thanks to the rise in radio receivers and the industry itself, Dukes band was
broadcast across the nation live on “From the Cotton Club.” The bands
music along with their popularity spread rapidly.
In 1928, Ellington and Irving Mills signed an agreement in which Mills
produced and published Ellingtons music. Recording companies like Brunswick,
Columbia, and Victor came calling. Dukes band became the most sought after
band in the United States and even throughout the world.
Some of Ellingtons greatest works include, Rockin in Rhythm, Satin
Doll, New Orleans, A Drum is a Women, Take the “A” Train,
Happy-Go-Lucky Local, The Mooche, and Crescendo in Blue.
Duke Ellington and his band went on to play everywhere from New York to New
Deli, Chicago to Cairo, and Los Angeles to London. Ellington and his band played
with such greats as Miles Davis, Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald,
Tony Bennett, and Louis Armstrong. They entertained everyone from Queen
Elizabeth II to President Nixon. Before passing away in 1974, Duke Ellington
wrote and recorded hundreds of musical compositions, all of which continue to
have a lasting effect upon people worldwide for a long time to come.