Duke Ellington - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


            Trying to imagine American music without Duke Ellington is a fruitless experiment. For over fifty years, he led a big band, toured, composed, and recorded non-stop, with a core of devoted musicians that collectively spent hundreds of years in his groups. His influence on both jazz and popular music, as a pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader is all-pervasive. A generation after his passing, his more than one thousand compositions and a recorded legacy of almost unbelievable proportions are enjoyed by music lovers the world over, even as they continue to inspire countless other musicians. Billy Strayhorn, who probably knew Duke better than anyone, explained the Ellington genius to DownBeat in 1952: “Ellington plays the piano, but his real instrument is his band. Each member of his band is to him a distinctive tone color and set of emotions, which he mixes with others equally distinctive to produce a third thing, which I like to call the Ellington Effect.”


            Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, DC, into a middle-class family, on April 29, 1899. His father, a butler for a prominent physician, also worked on occasion as a caterer at the White House. Both parents played piano, and young Edward began to play at the age of seven. In his teens, music competed with baseball and art for his attention. After a series of private lessons and some serious listening to piano masters James P. Johnson, Willie "the Lion" Smith, and Fats Waller, music won out. Ellington, who had already acquired the nickname Duke from friends in recognition of his snappy dress and elegant ways, started to play gigs in clubs and cafés. In 1916, he turned down a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, then dropped out of a commercial art school in order to go into music full-time. Ellington launched his career at the age of eighteen, starting his own band late in 1917, while also working day jobs as a sign painter and messenger. On July 2, 1918, he married his high school sweetheart, Edna Thompson, who gave birth to their only son, Mercer, on March 11, 1919. Mercer Ellington, who became a trumpeter in his father’s band and a bandleader in his own right, took over his father's group after Duke's death in 1974.


            By the early Twenties, Ellington and his group were busy most nights, playing at balls, dances, society parties, and restaurants around Washington. Even at this stage, Ellington’s associates were loyal. When his drummer Sonny Greer was asked to go to New York and work in Wilbur Sweatman’s group, Greer agreed, provided that Ellington and saxophonist Otto Hardwick came along as well. After a few gigs and a short run in a vaudeville show, Sweatman left town, so the trio of friends decided to see if they could make a go of it. Even with some help from Willie “The Lion” Smith, luck was not on their side, and a discouraged Ellington, Greer, and Hardwick returned to Washington.


            Just a few months later, in the spring of 1923, the three, along with trumpeter Arthur Whetsol, were back in New York, this time working in a group led by banjoist Elmer Snowden. They found a well-paying regular all-night gig at the Exclusive Club. Ellington, who’d written his first tune, the “Soda Fountain Rag,” when he was fifteen, set about composing in earnest. That September, the group moved to the Hollywood Club for a six-month engagement, adding two members on reeds and trombone to make it a septet, now called the Washingtonians. When Whetsol left the group to return to school, he was replaced by cornetist Bubber Miley, a specialist in the use of mutes and creator of a broad array of cries and growls. Early in 1924, trombonist Charlie Irvis, a fine blues player, joined the band. Originally a sweet dance band, the group had been transformed into a hot jazz combo. After a dispute about money in February, Ellington took over the leadership of the band. Slowly, Ellington began to add more personnel, expanding to 10 pieces by summer of 1926, with the expressive trombonist, Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, adding another distinctive voice.


            Impresario Irving Mills had published some of Ellington’s first songs in 1923. Impressed with the latest version of the group, Mills arranged for a record date with Brunswick, the band’s first for a major label. On November 29, 1926, Duke Ellington and His Kentucky Club Orchestra made their first recordings with their first theme song, “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” and the stomping “Birmingham Breakdown.” Mills, Duke’s manager and song publisher for the next dozen years, used his connections to secure numerous record dates for the band in 1927. “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” was reprised several times, soon joined by such memorable Ellington compositions as “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Creole Love Call,” and “Hop Head.” The band continued to grow, most notably adding baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, who would remain with the Ellington organization for an unbroken stretch of forty-seven years.


            On December 4, 1927, the band’s big break came when they secured a regular gig at the Cotton Club. During a residency that lasted five years, radio broadcasts from the bandstand made the group famous across America. With a steady need for new material for the club’s exotic revues, Ellington wrote music all the time, learning how to work under extreme pressure as well as how to compose for the specific talents of the individual voices in his band. One aspect of his art that Ellington mastered very early in his career was the ability to pack a wealth of ideas into the three minutes he had to work with. Mills kept the orchestra recording constantly as well, often reworking the same material for different labels. Sheet music sales also helped to popularize Duke’s music and provided another source of income as well.


            Another star soloist joined in 1928, saxophonist Johnny Hodges, whose staggeringly gorgeous tone and sensuous way with a ballad quickly became major components of the Ellington sound. Except for a period in the Fifties when he left the group to front his own orchestra, the influential Hodges was with Ellington for forty-two years. By 1930, trumpeter Cootie Williams had replaced the erratic Miley, Nanton was joined by valve trombonist Juan Tizol, and the reed section had expanded with the addition of clarinetist Barney Bigard. The orchestra made its first appearance on film in the 1929 short Black and Tan. In 1930, they became the first black band to receive a credit in a Hollywood film when they appeared in Check and Double Check.


            In 1932, Cab Calloway’s band replaced the Ellington group as the house band at the Cotton Club. Aside from another short stay at the club in 1937-38, the Ellington orchestra became a road institution. By the time the Swing Era burst into the public’s consciousness with Benny Goodman’s success at the Palomar Ballroom in 1935, Ellington and his group had been swinging for years. The 1932 hit, “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” not only predicted the next era in popular music, it also immediately established vocalist Ivie Anderson, who would remain in the band for a decade.


            From the early Thirties on, success followed success, and except for a brief time in the Fifties when big bands were considered passé, Ellington’s band and music never really lost its popularity. Major recordings of the Thirties include “Mood Indigo,” with its ingenious blend of muted trumpet, open trombone, and low-register clarinet, “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Drop Me Off In Harlem,” “Solitude” and many more. Early in the decade, Ellington had begun to compose extended works, including “Creole Rhapsody,” “Reminiscing in Tempo”, and “Diminuendo in Blue/Crescendo in Blue.” When the Ellington band made its first tour of Europe in 1933, Duke first presented a show based on their Cotton Club stage shows. But the British reviews were not enthusiastic. To Duke’s surprise, the public was more interested in his serious music. He adjusted the show, and positive reviews followed.


            The mid-Thirties edition of the orchestra boasted a trumpet section consisting of Rex Stewart (on cornet), Cootie Williams, and Arthur Whetsol, trombonists “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Lawrence Brown, and Juan Tizol, and a reed section with Bigard on tenor and clarinet, Hodges on alto, Hardwick on alto and clarinet, and Carney on baritone. The rhythm section included Ellington, long-time associate Fred Guy on guitar, Billy Taylor, Sr., on bass, and Greer on drums. In 1936, Ellington began to organize a series of small group sessions drawing on the array of talent in his group. It was a way to keep people working while functioning as a musical workshop for Duke’s endless flow of musical ideas. Such famous numbers as “Jeep’s Blues,” recorded by a Hodges group in 1938 and “Caravan,” done by a Bigard-led band in 1936, were first recorded at small group dates. These recordings, including solo piano performances, are collected in Duke Ellington: The Complete 1936-1940 Variety, Vocalion, and Okeh Small Group Sessions (2007 Mosaic).


            With the arrival of tenor saxophonist Ben Webster in the mid-Thirties, bass virtuoso Jimmy Blanton in 1939, and trumpeter/violinist Ray Nance in 1940, the band embarked on a golden period, featuring updated versions of past hits and new compositions like “Concerto for Cootie,” the up-tempo flagwavers “Cotton Tail” and “Ko-Ko,” and compact masterpieces like “Main Stem” and “Harlem Air Shaft.” Composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn came aboard in 1939, writing what would become the band's well-loved theme song, “Take the ‘A' Train,” while traveling to New York to join the group. For more than a quarter of a century, he had a role that Ellington later described as “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.” With Strayhorn and Ellington finishing one another’s musical phrases and the panoply of star soloists in orchestra, the early Forties saw an unparalleled run of inventive records. In 1943, after twenty years of gigging across the U.S. and ten years after their British concert debut, Ellington and the orchestra finally appeared on a major American stage, Carnegie Hall, in a concert benefitting Russian War Relief. Benny Goodman had famously brought jazz to Carnegie in 1938, but Ellington’s appearance was the first by an African-American organization. For the occasion, the band premiered “Black, Brown and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the History of the American Negro.” The 1943 show and subsequent appearances at Carnegie in 1944, 1946, and 1947, which continued to present new Ellington suites, were recorded and finally released in the Seventies by Prestige Records in a series of multi-album sets.


            Personnel changes within the band, beginning with Blanton’s premature death in 1942, and World War II and post-war conditions that affected all the big bands, took their toll on the Ellington group. Although still rated at the top of fans’ and critics’ polls, by the early Fifties the hits had stopped coming. Bop was making itself felt everywhere, and Hodges left to try running his own band. Undaunted, Ellington revitalized his band by staging what was known in the press as “The Great James Robbery,” a friendly raid on the Harry James band that secured three new players: a returning Juan Tizol, alto saxophonist Willie Smith, and drummer Louie Bellson. Trumpeters Clark Terry and Willie Cook joined around this time as well, joining Nance and Cat Anderson. Ellington signed with Capitol Records in 1953, and recorded one of his best-known songs, “Satin Doll,” at the first session in April. Times were dire for big bands, with even Count Basie reducing his group to an octet. Ellington was determined to keep the band together, so the band took any one-nighters they could find. The low point of Duke’s career was probably an anonymous gig in the summer of 1955 at the Aquacade show in New York. But he managed to keep the band working, and he kept writing new music.


            Johnny Hodges returned to the fold in the fall of 1955, joining a formidable reed section of clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton, alto saxist Russell Procope, tenor man Paul Gonsalves, and Carney, and there was a new bass and drums team in Jimmy Woode and Sam Woodyard. The band’s appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1956, started out as another swinging show, with the premiere of Duke’s “Newport Jazz Festival Suite” along with the usual selection of classics. But when the band closed the show with an extended tenor solo by Gonsalves to connect the two parts of “Diminuendo In Blue” and “Crescendo In Blue,” the audience went wild. Overnight, Ellington was a major star again. Just two months later, his face was on the cover of Time magazine. Ellington parlayed the heightened visibility into momentum that would keep the orchestra together and productive for the remainder of his life, and beyond.


            A new contract with Columbia Records produced the best-selling Ellington at Newport album and led to a period of stability that encompassed such projects as a new look at Black, Brown, and Beige with Mahalia Jackson (1958), a score for the television production A Drum Is a Woman (1957), film scores for Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Paris Blues (1960), a trio session (Piano In the Foreground, 1961), and an encounter with the Count Basie Orchestra (First Time!, 1961). There were also significant collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald (The Duke Ellington Songbook , 1957 Verve) and Louis Armstrong (1961 Roulette).


            Ellington made a series of adventuresome recordings in the second half of 1962. First there was Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (1962 Impulse), with the great tenor saxophonist joining an octet of Ellingtonians. In September, a trio of Ellington, bassist Charles Mingus, and drummer Max Roach recorded Money Jungle for United Artists (reissued in 2002 by Blue Note). Nine days after that came the quartet date Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (1962 Impulse), with bassist Aaron Bell and Jimmy Garrison and drummers Sam Woodyard and Elvin Jones heard in varying combinations.


            In 1965, Ellington was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, but was turned down in a controversial decision. At 67 years of age, Duke’s reaction was to say that "Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be famous too young." That same year, he organized his first Concert of Sacred Music (1966 RCA Victor), which was followed by two more religiously-themed suites in 1968 and 1975.


            The orchestra appeared at a never-ending series of concerts, dances, festival appearances, and special events, including Duke’s only collaboration with Frank Sinatra (Francis A. & Edward K., 1968 Reprise). There were recording sessions for Reprise in the mid-Sixties and for Fantasy later in the decade. Ellington also organized and paid for many private recording sessions, a stockpile that became the source for many posthumous releases. When Billy Strayhorn died of cancer in 1967, at the age of 51, an upset Ellington did what he did best, and put together a musical tribute. …And His Mother Called Him Bill (1967 RCA Victor) which won the sixth of Ellington’s thirteen Grammy Awards. He is also a member of the Grammy Hall of Fame. Among his many other honors were a Presidents Gold Medal in 1966, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969.


            Star soloist Johnny Hodges passed away in 1970 while the band was recording New Orleans Suite (1970 Atlantic), another Grammy winner. Several of the best-known works of the later period were inspired by the orchestra’s world tours, including The Far East Suite (1966 RCA Victor), The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (1971 Fantasy), and Togo Brava Suite (1971 United Artists). Ellington’s final recorded appearance with his orchestra came in England on December 1, 1973, issued as The Eastbourne Performance (1973 RCA Victor). As his health declined, Ellington continued to appear with the band until the following March, and was still writing music that spring for a ballet suite and a comic opera. His seventy-fifth birthday was a big cause for celebration. Duke Ellington died just a month later, on May 24, 1974.


            Duke Ellington was truly one-of-a-kind. Supremely gifted, always dignified, he was in the right place at the right time with the right people around him, allowing his talents to develop in the most delectable ways. With his compositions, arrangements, recordings, and superb piano playing, Ellington left a legacy of massive proportion for future generations of musicians and listeners to explore. Duke, we love you madly.

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