Duke Ellington: Biography, Songs & Facts

Instructor: Laura Armstrong

Laura is a freelance musician and has taught college Music courses and holds a D.M.A. in Music Performance.

In this lesson, you will learn about Duke Ellington, an American jazz legend. His musical works were known for their elegance and sophistication and influenced not just the development of jazz, but all music.

You Ain't Been Blue

Duke Ellington in 1946
Duke Ellington in 1946

You ain't been blue; no no no

You ain't been blue

Till you've had that mood indigo

These lyrics are from "Mood Indigo," one of Duke Ellington's most famous jazz songs. The elegance and sophistication of the song was Ellington's hallmark, and together with his other works, he forever changed the development of music in the 20th century and beyond.

Duke Ellington - Biography

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 1899. He was raised by a middle-class African-American family, and his parents were both pianists. At age seven, he began piano lessons with them and later studied with Marietta Clinkscales. His mother raised him to be a gentleman, and friends gave him nickname of "Duke" because of his elegant manners. Ellington was also a talented artist and was even awarded an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. But he chose to pursue a music career instead.

A prodigy, Ellington taught himself harmony by listening to ragtime pianists and by studying sheet music. Soon he was composing his own works, including "Soda Fountain Rag" at age fifteen. He also sought the advice of older musicians in Washington and with their encouragement, he began playing piano professionally in clubs in 1917.

While also working a day job as a freelance sign painter, Duke formed his first small group, The Duke's Serenaders, in 1917. They gave shows all over Washington. By 1923 he had played in various groups, performing in Atlantic City and Wisconsin before making his way to relocate in New York City. One such group was The Washingtonians, and with Duke as the pianist and leader, it became the house orchestra for the Cotton Club in 1927.

The Cotton Club, an upscale nightclub, was a focal point of jazz music during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. It was a time of cultural and artistic renewal led by the African Americans living the New York neighborhood, and Duke was inspired by it. His orchestra and compositions received national acclaim due to the Cotton Club's weekly radio broadcasts and studio recordings, and soon Ellington's fame grew exponentially.

Duke Ellington and his band

Eventually, Ellington's orchestra and his works were so popular that he was able to tour on his own independently. In the early 1930s he toured the United States, and he was a success in Europe by the late 1930s. Over his fifty-year career, he gave over 20,000 performances world-wide, including those in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia.

He shared his life with his wife Edna, whom he married in 1918, and together they raised their only child, Mercer Kennedy Ellington. On May 24, 1974, Duke passed away from lung cancer and pneumonia shortly after his 75th birthday and was buried the Bronx, New York City. Over 12,000 people attended his funeral, and his last words were "Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered."

Musical Style, Albums, and Songs

Duke Ellington was a versatile and talented musician. His piano playing was greatly influenced by the ragtime pianists James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and Willie "the Lion" Smith. While watching them as a teenager, he absorbed their style and technique, and his early compositions were of this style. He was able to lead bands from the piano by setting tempos, directing other players, and with improvised introductions.

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