Edward Kennedy Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 in Washington, DC. His parents were James Edward Ellington and Daisy Ellington, both talented pianists. The young Ellington was raised in a middle-class African-American neighborhood of West End in DC. His father worked for the United States Navy as a blueprint technician, though some resources state that he worked as butler at the White House.
His parents started his early in life with piano lessons. Even at an early age, young Ellington was known for his good manners and being very well-dressed. In fact, the nickname Duke was given to him by a friend during his childhood. Ellington became a fan of ragtime and wrote his first ragtime song in 1914, while working as a soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Cafe. As a young teen, he was sneaking into poolrooms to hear music. At this time, he began taking his piano lessons more seriously.
Ellington had also shown talent as an artist and upon graduation from high school, he had been offered a scholarship a the Pratt Institute. He turned that down, however to concentrate on his music and began playing solo piano gigs at clubs in the DC area. Supporting himself as a sign painter and a messenger, he formed his first band in 1917: The Duke’s Serenaders. They became relative popular and began playing dances and society balls in Washington and the Virginia suburbs for both African-American and white audiences.
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Here’s one of Ellington’s earliest published songs: The East St. Louis Toodle-Oo, from 1927, by Duke Ellington and His Washingtonians