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Duke Ellington: Music, Piano & Big Band

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  • 0:01 The Duke of Jazz
  • 0:36 Duke the Pianist and Musician
  • 1:45 Ellington and Big Bands
  • 4:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Duke Ellington was a famous American composer and musician of the 20th century with an incredible role in the history of jazz. Explore his life and legacy, and then test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Duke of Jazz

Duke Ellington

Hey, hush up, show some respect! After all, you're in the presence of royalty. Jazz royalty. See this room? Yeah, it looks like a concert hall, but really, you are in the royal court of the Duke of Jazz himself. Edward Kennedy Ellington, most often referred to as 'Duke' Ellington, was a 20th-century pianist, composer, and bandleader who fundamentally changed the history of American jazz music. Okay, take a knee. Here he comes. Now announcing his royal presence: Duke Ellington.

Duke the Pianist and Musician

Duke Ellington was born in 1899. He started taking piano lessons at age seven, although he learned to play by ear and could not read or write music. That didn't stop him from composing his own pieces, his first being the 'Soda Fountain Rag', which he wrote when he was 15. Ellington soon established himself as a talented pianist. His main interest was in ragtime music, a lively dance music noted for offbeat rhythms and one of the precursors of modern jazz music. Ellington and a small band played across Washington, DC, then eventually moved to New York City's Harlem neighborhood. And this is where things really took off.

Harlem in the 1920s was entering into the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of artistic production, maintained by African-American intellectuals and creative geniuses. With Ellington on piano, and sometimes the bugle, his little band grew in size and popularity. By 1923, they were playing at Harlem's most prestigious clubs and started producing records. From there, their fame had nowhere to go but up.

Ellington and Big Bands

Despite his great talent for piano, Duke Ellington never felt like that was his true calling. Nor is it actually what he is most remembered for. Duke Ellington's fame and place in history is actually mostly due to his role in developing the era of big bands: large orchestras that played jazz music, most notably swing. Before this, most African-American jazz bands were smaller, and they mostly played in small African-American clubs. As Duke Ellington developed his musical tastes, he gathered more and more musicians, and eventually formed them into a large orchestra, called a 'big band.' This 11-piece orchestra played at the exclusive Cotton Club in Harlem and was one of the few groups in jazz history to maintain popularity with both white and black audiences at a time when segregation was still a way of life.

Duke Ellington's orchestras are some of the most respected in the history of jazz, especially in the style of big band swing, a popular kind of dance music. Besides being a charismatic figure and a talented bandleader himself, Ellington was able to attract some extremely gifted musicians. In fact, many of the most highly regarded jazz musicians of the time were members of Ellington's orchestra. And Duke realized it. Rather than letting such skills go to waste, he often composed songs specifically targeted to highlight the talent of individual performers. For example, the song, 'Jeep's Blues' was written to highlight saxophonist Johnny Hodges, who is remembered as one of the most skilled sax players in history.

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