At the age of seventeen, Duke Ellington started playing piano professionally. However, he formed his first group known as ‘Duke’s Serenaders’ in 1917. Songwriter and music scout Irving Mills agreed to produce and publish Ellington’s music as early as 1928. The music then became highly prized both across the United States and around the world. Ellington was the first jazz composer who made the length of a 78 rpm record in his three minute masterpiece, ‘Harlem Airshaft.’ ‘Cottontail,’ ‘Streets of New York’ and ‘Mainstem’ were some of the most famous hits from that era. Ellington’s goal was then to extend the limit of the three minute music. ‘Creole Rhapsody’ was one of the first masterpieces to break the record of three minute limit in 1931. However, Ellington was not given recognition for this work until the 1940’s.
The early 1940’s was a period of immense fame for Ellington. He wrote and made a masterpiece for the band featuring different voices with his arresting creativity. Ellington was a prominent icon in the history of jazz music. He stretched the passion of his music in many other genres as well, such as gospel, popular, blues, film score and classical. His more than a half century career included being bandleader for his own group, the Duke Ellington Orchestra.. Ellington also composed an extensive songbook, background scores for movies, music for world tours and even composed several stage musicals. Many of his instrumental works have now become standards and adapted across a variety of jazz and popular styles. Ellington is known for his work elevating the standards of jazz music through his extraordinary creativity and gift for melody. His sense of music and composition of music were rare; Ellington’s most famous works include: ‘Satin Doll,’ ‘A Drum is a Women,’ ‘Rocking in Rhythm,’ ‘Take the ‘A’ Train,’ ‘The Mooche,’ ‘Happy-Go-Lucky Local’ and ‘Crescendo in Blue.’
Born in Washington D.C. on 29th April, 1899, Duke Ellington was considered one of the major icons in the world of jazz music. Ellington belonged to a middle class family that had a musical background. His parents were talented musicians and brought him up with music lessons, starting in early childhood. Ellington began to learn piano at the age of seven and was given the nickname ‘Duke’ because of his chivalrous conduct. At the age of fifteen, Ellington wrote his foremost piece of music ‘Soda Fountain Rag’ after he was inspired with his job as a soda jerk. His passion for music and playing piano took off when he began playing professionally at the age of seventeen. Regardless of being offered an art scholarship by the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, Ellington could not be swayed from his passion for music.
Ellington started performing with his troops in Broadway nightclubs in the 1920’s. Ellington was the bandleader and his band consisted of a 10-piece ensemble. His ability to handpick the best up and coming musicians was always a unique and often quirky talent. He normally chose those who had some kind of uniqueness in their art, such as Joe Nanton who was very much famous because of his trombone growl, or Bubber Miley who made the wa-wa sound with the help of the plunger. Ellington’s hundreds of recordings were used in many films and came on air constantly throughout his life.
Some of his famous masterworks were, ‘Concerto for Cootie,’ ‘Ko-Ko,’ and ‘Cotton Tail,’ in the 1940’s. Many of his hits including ‘Sophisticated Lady,’ ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing’ and ‘Satin Doll’ were sung by inspiring singers like Ivie Anderson, who was perhaps the most beloved female vocalists of Ellington’s band.
The sense of music and musical drama that Ellington naturally possessed was one key to his success. The way he blended rhythms, melodies and his delicate sonic engagements enlightened the audience with a completely new frontier for jazz. It was a common practice for Ellington to write features for individual sidemen and used his vast knowledge of orchestration to incorporate his players’ strengths. Ellington was the first jazz composer who broke the record for three minute time limitation on the 78-rpm, with ‘Reminiscing in Tempo’ and ‘Creole Rhapsody’. However, after the 1940’s Ellington started working on prolonged musical works, which included themes and stories based primarily on African American people and their lives. For much of his life, Ellington kept his place in the background, pianistically speaking; it wasn’t until the 1950’s when he emerged as a prominent piano soloist.
Ellington received many Grammy Awards in his more than a half-century career. He was awarded the Springarn Medal from NAACP and was a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize in 1964. Awarded with a prize from the city of New York and a degree in doctor of music in 1967 by Yale University, Ellington continues to be an icon for many pianists. Ellington was also privileged to be awarded a Medal of Freddom in a White House ceremony led by President Richard Nixon. Ellington was surely one of the most remarkable and legendary names in the history of jazz music.
Duke Ellington began playing piano at the age of seven, and started his professional career by the time he was 17, after which he quickly formed a small band and soon turned it into a 10-piece ensemble. His passion and creativity in music outshined him from other musicians in the history of jazz music.
Ellington’s early work ‘jungle style’ was influenced by blues-based melodies and vocalized sounds, including instrumental effects by his trumpeters Bubber Miley and Joe Nanton, who played growl sounds. Ellington always selected his musicians on the basis of their creativity and ability to express themselves through the music. Ellington worked with many famous jazz artists like Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams, Barney Bigard and Harry Carney. Ellington made hundreds of recordings and toured extensively throughout the United States and Europe, quickly becoming a popular jazz legend.
Ellington had the vision to break away from the conventional methods of scoring. He used innovative and breathtaking harmonies, coupled with orchestrations that blended his diverse musicians under an umbrella. Moreover, Ellington tried – very effectively – combining jazz styles with classical forms. He used these techniques to express clear themes in his songs, many of which focused on African American, melodies and styles.
Ellington’s melodic, rhythmic and harmonic compositions became standards off of which many other artists would spin personal interpretations. His sense of creativity and ability to orchestrate music that enlightened his audience opened a new horizon for ‘traditional’ jazz. While his piano abilities placed him at the forefront of his era, Ellington continues to be regarded as one of the preeminent jazz composers of all time, and it is for his unique compositions and orchestrations that Ellington is most remembered today.
Videos and Recordings
Duke Ellington playing Take the A Train:
It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing: