Edward Kennedy Ellington was born 116 years ago today, April 29, 1899, in Washington D.C. Over his career of over five decades, Ellington excelled as a composer, orchestra leader and pianist.
Both of his parents played the piano and the young Ellington started piano lessons at the age of seven. Born into a middle-class African-American family, his mother ensured that her son learned good manners, taught him to live a dignified, elegant life. His nickname of Duke was given to him quite early due to his manners and grace. Ellington wrote his first piece “Soda Fountain Rag” while working as soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Cafe in 1914. His interest in the piano left the classical world and moved to the jazz and ragtime. Even when offered a scholarship to the Pratt Institute to study art, he chose to focus on his music. In 1917 he formed his first group and played society dates and embassy parties in Washington.
He and his drummer, Sonny Greer, moved to New York and Harlem and began the hard job of getting noticed in the larger city. There were setbacks, but he persevered and by 1924 was leading his own group and making records. In 1926, he began his relationship with the agent Irving Mills, which gave him even more recording opportunities. By 1927, his group became the house band for the Cotton Club, which also meant a weekly radio broadcast, further cementing his stature. From then into the 1930s, he was composing some of his greatest works, including “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Solitude” and “Mood Indigo.”
In 1941, he met Billy Strayhorn and hired him immediately. Strayhorn composed some of Ellington’s great recordings including “Take the A Train” and “Chelsea Bridge.” The two men worked together until Strayhorn’s death in 1967. Ellington faced the challenges of all the big bands from the 1930s and 40s: the economics of keeping a large band running combined with the inevitable changes in music tastes spelled doom to most of the big bands; even Benny Goodman had to shut his down. Ellington managed to keep his group intact until his death, when it was taken over by his son Mercer.
In the 1940s, Ellington began to focus on longer-form jazz compositions, such as “Black, Brown and Beige,” which he debuted at Carnegie Hall. He also wrote the scores to musicals and films as well. However, by 1955, he was without a recording label.
That all changed on July 7, 1956 when Ellington appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and gave one of the greatest live jazz performances ever. He announced that he would play “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” consisting of two songs he had played since the 1930s, with an “interlude” to be played by Paul Gonsalves on tenor sax. And thus began the greatest 14 minutes jazz ever heard:
This performance boosted Ellington’s career and he continued to tour extensively, both in the US and overseas. In 1965, he premiered the first of his Sacred Concerts, with others following in 1968 and 1973.
Duke Ellington died from lung cancer on May 24, 1974, just a few weeks before his 75th birthday.
The Year of Tony Bennett acknowledges the great Duke Ellington often, but especially today, on the day of his birth. We sign off with Tony Bennett singing one of Ellington’s songs: “Solitude” from Bennet’s 1962 performance at Carnegie Hall.