Happy Birthday to The Duke

Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington Wikimedia Commons

Duke Ellington wasn’t always The Duke.

The famous musician was born Edward Kennedy Ellington on April 29, 1899, in Washington, D.C.

Growing up, his parents set high standards for manners and how the young Ellington should carry himself. His friends picked up on his well-groomed persona, and his casual air of elegance, that made him seem more like a nobleman than a child; more like a “Duke.”

It was a name that would foreshadow the elegance and ease with which Ellington commanded the musical world, writing or co-writing thousands of songs during his 50-year career as a bandleader. Many say the pianist, bandleader and composer elevated jazz to the same level of respect and prestige as classical music, giving the genre, which Ellington called “American music,” a permanent place in the country’s history and culture. (Jazz Appreciation Month is celebrated the same month as Ellington’s birthday.)

Today, more than 100,000 pages of unpublished music, along with thousands of other documents and artifacts, are preserved in the National Museum of American History’s Duke Ellington Collection, where musicians and composers from the world over come to try to see a glimpse of Duke’s genius.

Ellington began piano lessons at age 7, but never stuck with formal training. It wasn’t until he was 14, when he began to watch ragtime pianists perform, that he became serious about music. While working at the soda fountain of a local café, he wrote his first song. ‘Soda Fountain Rag.” He played it by ear every time he performed, since he hadn’t learned to read music.

Before he wrote hits like “Take the ‘A’ Train” or "Mood Indigo,” Ellington formed a band called “The Duke’s Serenaders,” who eventually played for embassies and high society balls around Washington. When his drummer left the band, he decided to try to make it big in New York City, the center of the jazz world.

Duke Ellington, born on April 29, 1903. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution

It was here, during the Harlem Renaissance, he began to develop a style that is counted among one of his biggest contributions to jazz: The “Big Band” style. Traditionally, band leaders wrote pieces so their group would produce one, uniform sound—as if only one person was playing. But Ellington was one of the first bandleaders to celebrate individual players in his group, writing songs specifically to highlight the talent of soloists.

Under this leadership, the band Ellington began in 1923, The Washingtonians, thrived. They played at the Exclusive Club in Harlem and the Hollywood Club on 49th and Broadway before becoming the house band at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club in 1932, a gig that lasted a decade. Later that year, they premiered the hit “It Don’t Mean A Thing If You Ain’t Got That Swing,” and when the swing obsession swept the nation three years later, some even called Ellington prophetic.

"Our major effort has been to make the symphony orchestra swing, which everybody says can't be done, but I think we managed to do it very well," Ellington said in his autobiography, Music is My Mistress.

Ellington did it quite well for more than 50 years, helping dozens of jazz musicians launch their career in his band. He composed more than 3,000 songs from his helm at the piano, both for his own band and for others. Ellington and his band also performed across Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia.

When Ellington died of lung cancer in 1974, his son, Mercer Ellington, took over The Washingtonians, who continued to play until Mercer’s death in 1996. Ellington’s grandchildren now run the band under the name the Duke Ellington Legacy Big Band.

Celebrate Ellington’s legacy by doing a little swing of your own—or learn some lessons from The Duke himself with Smithsonian Jazz’s online Ellington Class.

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