By: Victoria Yates
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born on the 29th of April 1899 in Washington D.C to James Edward and Daisy Kennedy Ellington. Despite their modest financial state, James working as a butler and Daisy in various domestic and government positions, the Ellingtons were keen to create an atmosphere of courtliness and civility, something furthered by Daisy in particular who sought to surround their son with dignified women who would help reinforce manners. It was this air of grace and elegance that led to his childhood friends bestowing him the nickname ‘Duke’.
Ellington’s boyhood love was initially baseball, playing on 16th Street where President Roosevelt would sometimes stop and watch their games. After being hit on the head by a bat during a game however, his mother decided it would be the end of his career, hiring Marietta Clinkscales to be his piano teacher. Initially Ellington didn’t take to the idea, skipping the majority of his lessons and instead selling popcorn at Griffith Stadium.
As a boy he adopted his father’s love of finery and graceful living, even requesting that his young cousins bowed to him. But he was still aware of the socially divided world he lived in, regularly attending the Gayety Burlesque theatre where blacks were only allowed on the balcony.
Reaching his teen years, Ellington was immersed in a culture of traditional church music and the more popular dance and ragtime sounds of the time. He began to take his music more seriously, creating his first composition “Soda Fountain Rag” while working as a soda jerk in 1913. Ellington was never greatly interested in academics; his greatest skill for much of his youth being drawing, skipping class to play piano and eventually dropping out of school in 1917.
As a large part of the young male population went to war jobs were easy to come by for Ellington, who took to sign painting and messenger work during the day and playing piano at night - first with various groups before starting his own “The Duke’s Serenaders”. By this time he had married Edna Thompson, a high school peer and neighbour who he married after pressure from both their parents when she was found to be pregnant with his son Mercer. Although they remained married legally for a long time, the pair only lived together for a few years.
He continued to run his sign painting business, using it as a springboard for his band by asking patrons who wanted a sign for a dance hall is they needed entertainment. The Serenaders became a series of bands that were under Duke’s control but with which Duke would only appear for a premium.
In 1923 Ellington left his Washington success for Harlem where he became a prominent member of the Harlem Renaissance. Initially he and his group were discouraged. However in the September they moved to the Hollywood club where they would remain for four years, affording Ellington a solid base from which to build his artistic work. The band was named The Washingtonians, which Ellington came to lead in 1924.
In 1924-25 the group made numerous records, and their first real success came in 1926 when Irving Mills became their manager and publisher. Several pieces came to be synonymous with Ellington such as “Black and Tan fantasy”. This was released shortly before his big break when they became the house band at the Cotton Club whose radio broadcasts made Ellington a household name across America. The group’s golden age spanned the decade from 1932-42.
The money he gained from this meant that he could assemble a band of the best musicians for whom he could compose music specifically. Bubber Miley, a groundbreaking trumpeter, is accredited as having deeply influenced Ellington’s sound with his ‘growl trumpet’ helping create the ‘jungle style’ associated with the band. He was however forced to leave the group due to alcoholism and died in 1932 before the band experienced real fame.
In 1933 and 34 the Ellington orchestra travelled to England and mainland Europe, garnering praise and demonstrating the strength and size of Ellington’s following abroad. He also travelled extensively in America during this time, a move that enabled him to largely escape the effects the depression was having on the music industry. His orchestra was an exception in the sense that they seemed to seamlessly move from the Hot Jazz that typified the 20s to Swing music which came to prominence in the 30s, creating songs that later exemplified the movement such as “It don’t mean a thing (if it ain’t got that swing)”.
After the death of his mother in 1935 he took a temporary hiatus - but the music industry was changing, the mass distribution of jukeboxes and the growing view of swing as a part of ‘youth culture’ meant that the audience was changing and ‘danceability’ was becoming a key factor in sales. He countered by creating numbers with smaller segments of his orchestra and composed pieces intended for specific instrumentalists. Even with his success finances were tight as the 30s drew to a close and he left Mills for the William Morris Agency.
Throughout the 40s Ellington continually innovated, growing in influence and solidifying his fame. He collaborated closely with a small group of highly talented individuals, writing alongside the handpicked group to create pieces of incredibe musical brilliance.
Ellington’s goal became the extension of the jazz form, although this was something he had previously attempted it became a part of his regular work in the 40s, creating compositions such as “Black, Brown, and Beige”, a narrative of African American history.
The end of the WWII saw a shift away from Big bands and towards soloists such as Sinatra, a move which saw Ellington and his orchestra increasingly at odds with the ever more profit margin focused record companies. Further changes in both jazz and wider musical taste saw Ellington, a steadfast believer in his work, still further adrift from the mainstream.
In the 50s came Ellington’s revival. A rekindled interest in jazz saw Ellington performing at the Newport Jazz Festival, a moment that reintroduced him and his work to a wide audience. He created masterpieces and commercial successes as well as turning to film scores and musical adaptations of novels and classical songs.
His score, created with Strayhorn, for Anatomy of a Murder is widely perceived as a piece of cinematic history, breaking with common conventions of movie music at the time.
In the 1960s Ellington worked with artists whose brand of jazz had slowly pushed him and his work from the limelight, as well as those such as Louis Armstrong who had found themselves in the same position, facing the same sudden revival.
Ellington continued to record work until very close to his death, creating into the late 60s and early 70s. He died of pneumonia and lung cancer on May 24th 1971 at the age of 75.
Ellington’s work has become a cornerstone of American culture, and part of the spirit and fabric of American history. The pioneering work done by him and his band changed the face of Jazz and his stalwart belief in his music led him from fame to mere subsistence to iconic heights.