Duke Ellington was a jazz composer, pianist, and bandleader. He is widely considered to be one of the most important figures in American music.
Duke Ellington was born in Washington D.C. in 1899 and died in 1974. He is considered to be one of the most influential musicians in American history, and he has influenced many artists including Louis Armstrong, Billy Strayhorn, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker among others. His most famous songs include Take The A Train, Satin Doll, Mood Indigo, and It Don’t Mean a Thing.
Duke Ellington was the most significant jazz composer of all time, as well as a bandleader who kept his big ensemble together for almost 50 years. Ellington utilized his band as a musical laboratory for his new works, and he structured his writing especially to highlight the skills of his bandmembers, many of whom stayed with him for extended periods of time. Ellington also composed cinema and theater musical compositions, and many of his instrumental pieces were turned into classics. He recorded extensively in addition to traveling year after year, resulting in a massive amount of material that was still being evaluated a quarter century after his death.
Ellington was born in affluent circumstances as the son of a White House butler, James Edward Ellington. He started taking piano lessons at the age of seven and was composing music by the time he was in his teens. In 1917, he dropped out of high school in his junior year to pursue a musical career. He began by booking and performing in bands in the Washington, D.C., region, but in September 1923, he and his five-piece group, the Washingtonians, relocated permanently to New York, where they established a residency at the Times Square venue The Hollywood Club (later The Kentucky Club). They began recording in November 1924 and recorded songs for several record labels under various aliases, such that many contemporary major labels, including Sony, Universal, and BMG, now have significant holdings of their work from the time in their archives, which are released on a regular basis.
The band grew in size over time and eventually came under Ellington’s direction. They performed in a “jungle” manner, with trumpeter James “Bubber” Miley’s subdued growling sound frequently highlighting their clever compositions. Ellington’s first trademark tune, “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” which the band recorded for Vocalion Records in November 1926 and became their first chart hit in a re-recorded version for Columbia in July 1927, is an excellent example of this.
On December 4, 1927, the Ellington band relocated to Harlem’s Cotton Club. Due to radio broadcasts from the bandstand, Ellington became a nationally recognized artist during their more than three-year tenure at the legendary club. In 1928, he had two two-sided successes on Victor (now BMG): “Black and Tan Fantasy”https://www.allmusic.com/”Creole Love Call” and “Doin’ the New Low Down”https://www.allmusic.com/”Diga Diga Doo” on OKeh (now Sony), both issued as the Harlem Footwarmers. OKeh’s “The Mooche” reached the top of the charts in the beginning of 1929.
While keeping his employment at The Cotton Club, Ellington moved his band downtown in the summer of 1929 to perform in the Broadway musical Show Girl, which included George Gershwin’s songs. The next summer, the band took a break from touring to participate in the film Check and Double Check in California. “Three Little Words,” from the score, had a number one success on Victor in November 1930, with vocals by the Rhythm Boys starring Bing Crosby; the flip side, “Ring Dem Bells,” also charted.
In February 1931, the Ellington band departed The Cotton Club to go on a tour that would last until the leader’s death 43 years later. At the same time, an instrumental version of one of Ellington’s classics, “Mood Indigo,” was published on Victor and became a Top Five success. Later, the album was admitted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The Ellington Orchestra charted on Brunswick in 1931 as “the Jungle Band” with “Rockin’ in Rhythm” and “Creole Rhapsody,” which was released on two sides of a 78 record, indicating that Ellington’s ambitions as a composer were starting to expand beyond short compositions. (Another version of the song was released as a Victor chart entry in March 1932.) In August 1931, Ellington had a Top Ten success on Victor with “Limehouse Blues,” and in the winter of 1932, he had a Top Ten hit on Brunswick with “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” with Ivie Anderson’s vocals. This was more than three years before the swing era officially began, and Ellington was instrumental in coining the term. “Sophisticated Lady,” another trademark tune for Ellington, was his second big success. In the spring of 1933, his instrumental rendition became a Top Five success, with the flip side, a treatment of “Stormy Weather,” also reaching the Top Five.
In the spring of 1934, the Ellington Orchestra produced another feature picture, Murder at the Vanities. In May, their instrumental version of “Cocktails for Two” from the score reached number one on Victor, while both sides of the Brunswick album “Moon Glow” entered the Top Five.https://www.allmusic.com/ “Solitude” was the word of the season. The band also performed on the soundtrack of Many Happy Returns and featured in the Mae West film Belle of the Nineties. The band returned to the Top Ten with “Saddest Tale” later in the autumn, and they had two Top Ten singles in 1935, “Merry-Go-Round” and “Accent on Youth.” Ellington recorded another of his lengthy pieces, “Reminiscing in Tempo,” which took up both sides of two 78s, when the latter was scoring in the hit parade in September. Even as his ambitions grew, he remained a hit machine, earning another Top Ten smash, “Cotton,” in the autumn of 1935, and two more in 1936, “Love Is Like a Cigarette” and “Oh Babe! Maybe Someday.” In 1936, the band returned to Hollywood and recorded music for the Marx Brothers’ film A Day at the Races as well as the 1937 hit parade. Meanwhile, “Scattin’ at the Kit-Kat” and “Caravan,” a swing standard co-written by valve trombonist Juan Tizol, were Top Ten successes, while Ellington continued to write lengthy instrumental pieces like “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue.” In the spring of 1938, Ellington’s vocal song “If You Were in My Place (What Would You Do?)” was a Top Ten success, and in April, he had his third number one hit with an instrumental rendition of another classic, “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.” With a cover of the British show song “Lambeth Walk,” he returned to the Top Ten in the autumn.
At the conclusion of the 1930s, the Ellington band experienced a number of significant alterations. Ellington went to Victor after many years of recording for Brunswick on a more or less regular basis. Billy Strayhorn, a teenage composer, arranger, and pianist, joined the group in early 1939. He seldom performed with the orchestra, but he became Ellington’s songwriting collaborator to the point that it was difficult to discern where Ellington’s work ended and Strayhorn’s started. With the additions of bassist Jimmy Blanton in September and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster in December, the band has grown significantly. Their influence on Ellington’s style was so significant that jazz aficionados nicknamed them “the Blanton-Webster Band” throughout their short stay. The Victor release of Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” a swing period classic, in the summer of 1941 highlighted these different developments. Later, the album was admitted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Ellington was in Los Angeles the same summer, when his stage musical, Jump for Joy, premiered on July 10 and lasted for 101 performances. The play never made it to Broadway, but one of its songs, “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” became a classic. The Ellington band’s momentum was halted by the United States’ entrance into World War II in December 1941 and the recording prohibition imposed by the American Federation of Musicians in August 1942. Ellington found an opportunity to return to extended composition with the first of a series of annual recitals at Carnegie Hall on January 23, 1943, at which he premiered “Black, Brown, and Beige.” Unable to record and with touring curtailed, Ellington found an opportunity to return to extended composition with the first of a series of annual recitals at Carnegie Hall on January 23, 1943, at which he premiered “Black, Brown, and Beige.” He also returned to film, starring in Cabin in the Sky and Reveille with Beverly in Cabin in the Sky and Reveille with Beverly. Meanwhile, in search of hits, record companies turned to their artists’ back archives. Bob Russell put a verse to Ellington’s 1940 tune “Never No Lament,” resulting in “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” The Ink Spots’ vocal version (recorded a cappella) was a success, and Ellington’s three-year-old instrumental performance was a hit as well, hitting the pop Top Ten and number one on the newly established R&B charts. Russell created “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me” from another 1940 Ellington instrumental, “Concerto for Cootie” (a showcase for trumpeter Cootie Williams). The retitled song reached the pop Top Ten and number one on the R&B charts for Ellington in early 1944, almost four years after it was recorded, while freshly recorded vocal cover versions also charted. During the years 1943-1944, Ellington’s vintage recordings dominated the R&B charts, with hits including “A Slip of the Lip (Can Sink a Ship),” “Sentimental Lady,” and “Main Stem.” With the lifting of the recording prohibition in November 1944, Ellington was allowed to record “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” a tune he wrote with his saxophonist, Johnny Hodges, put to a lyric by Don George and Harry James. In April 1945, the James recording reached number one, but Ellington’s was also a Top Ten success.
Ellington’s period as a major commercial force on records came to an end with the end of the war, but unlike other big bandleaders who disbanded as the swing era passed, Ellington, who predated the era, simply continued touring, supplementing his diminished road revenues with songwriting royalties to keep his band afloat. The Ellington band no longer had a position at the top of the industry in a musical environment where jazz was drifting away from popular music and toward bebop, and popular music was controlled by vocalists; yet it continued functioning. Ellington continued to experiment with longer compositions. In 1946, he collaborated on the music for the Broadway musical Beggar’s Holiday with writer John Latouche, which premiered on December 26 and lasted for 108 performances. In 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle, he composed his first full-length background music for a feature picture.
Ellington had a tough time in the early half of the 1950s, with many personnel defections. (Some of the musicians subsequently returned.) However, on July 7, 1956, at the Newport Jazz Festival, the band made a big return with a rendition of “Dimuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” which featured saxophonist Paul Gonsalves playing a lengthy, unforgettable solo. Ellington was featured on the cover of Time magazine and signed a new deal with Columbia Records, which issued Ellington at Newport, his best-selling record. Ellington focused more on longer pieces throughout the remainder of his career, freed from the need to write singles and aided by the extra time available on the LP record. Due to his resurgence as a live performer, he was given more chances to travel, and in the autumn of 1958, he embarked on his first full-scale European tour. He’d be a busy globe traveler for the rest of his life.
Ellington starred in and composed the film Anatomy of a Murder in 1959, and the soundtrack earned him three Grammy Awards: best dance band performance, best musical composition of the year, and best soundtrack. For his next score, Paris Blues, he was nominated for an Academy Award (1961). My People, a cavalcade of African-American history, was staged in Chicago as part of the Century of Negro Progress Exposition in August 1963.
Meanwhile, he continued to lead his band in live performances and recordings. He moved from Columbia to Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label (which was later acquired by Warner Bros. Songs) and released several pop-oriented records that disappointed his supporters but showed he had not abandoned his wide commercial ambitions. He hadn’t given up on his creative ambitions, as shown by the first of his holy performances, which he played in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on September 16, 1965. And he still craved theatrical success, returning to Broadway with the musical Pousse-Café, which premiered on March 18, 1966, but closed only a few weeks later. Three months later, the Sinatra picture Assault on a Queen debuted in theaters throughout the nation, with an Ellington score. (In 1969, his last film soundtrack, Change of Mind, was released.)
In his latter years, Ellington became a Grammy favorite. He received a Grammy for “In the Beginning, God” from his religious performances in 1966 for best original jazz composition. In 1967, his album Far East Suite, which was inspired by a trip of the Middle and Far East, won the Grammy for best instrumental jazz performance, and in 1969, he won his sixth Grammy in the same category for And His Mother Called Him Bill, a homage to Strayhorn, who had died in 1967. In 1971, “New Orleans Suite” won another Grammy in the category, as did “Togo Brava Suite” in 1972, and The Ellington Suites, which was released posthumously in 1976.
Ellington continued to play until he was diagnosed with lung cancer and pneumonia in the spring of 1974, and died. His death did not bring the band to a stop; instead, it was taken up by his son Mercer, who led it until his death in 1996, and then by a grandson. Meanwhile, Ellington finally got the theatrical success he’d always desired when his music was used in the Broadway revue Sophisticated Ladies, which debuted on March 1, 1981 and lasted for 767 performances.
The many commemorations of Duke Ellington’s centennial in 1999 showed that he was still recognized as a prominent jazz composer. Even though it appeared unusual in a musical style that prioritizes spontaneous improvisation over planned composition, Ellington was gifted enough to overcome it. He wrote primarily for his band, giving his veteran players space to solo within his compositions, and as a result, he produced a body of work that appeared to be destined to help jazz enter the academic and institutional realms, which was very much its direction at the turn of the twentieth century. In that way, he was a forerunner of jazz’s future and might be considered one of its most important practitioners.
Duke Ellington is an American composer, pianist, and bandleader who has been called the greatest of all time by many music critics. He was one of the most influential jazz musicians, composers, and bandleaders in history. Reference: duke ellington early life.
Frequently Asked Questions
What song is Duke Ellington most famous for?
Take the A Train
Was Duke Ellingtons mother white?
I dont know.
Who did Duke Ellington marry?
Duke Ellington married Juanita Nance, who was a fashion designer.
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