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Edward Kennedy Ellington, or “Duke” Ellington as he was always known, was without doubt the most prolific and among the most talented bandleaders of the entire “big band era”. With a portfolio of more than one thousand songs, covering a wide range of styles, from blues to popular, jazz to gospel in a career the Duke left an indelible mark on the music industry remains as strongly in place today

 

 

Born in April 29, 1899 in Washington, DC, to a middle class family, Duke was encouraged to play piano from an early age. Rumor has it that the young Ellington was given his nickname “Duke”  by school friends because of his extreme good manners and polite behavior that his parents insisted upon. Whatever the reason, from as long as anyone could remember, Ellington was always the Duke.

 

Duke's parents had a lot of plans for for their son, most of which he didn’t agree with as his love for music precluded most of them. It was little surprise when Ellington  dropped out of high school when already eighteen years old intent on pursuing a full time career in music.  Even then, it was obvious to anyone that heard him play, that Duke Ellington had a rare talent as a pianist that would one day take him to the very heights of the music industry.

It wasn’t too long that even the fast flowing music scene in Washington DC was to prove too confining for Ellington’s talents. When the combo he was playing in, the Washingtonians, were booked to play  in New York City, Ellington has no second thoughts and set off to try his luck in the center of jazz-  Harlem in the summer of 1923.

 

In those days, at the height of the Roaring Twenties, the music scene in New York was white hot, and the Duke just couldn’t get enough of it. Already in his mid twenties, Ellington was a bundle of energy and talent, performing at night and recording by day. During these exciting times,  Ellington and his band recorded under a variety of pseudonyms, with  some of these class  early recordings remaining unrecognized till many years later.

 

 

Gradually the Washingtonians grew and evolved to become  the Duke Ellington Orchestra, With Ellington expressing his  his rapidly developing composing and arrangement skills, characterized by a particularly deep trumpet sound.

 

It wasn’t too long before Harlem’s famous Cotton Club began to feature the band on a regular basis, offering them a residency in late 1927, which was to stay in place for more than three years.

During the Cotton Club years the Duke Ellington orchestra became a key feature in the jazz world, thanks to the regular live radio broadcasts from the club, backed up by regular recordings that the band would make.

Some of the standards that  the Duke recorded at that time were “Black and Tan Fantasy”, (for many years Ellington’s theme tune) Creole Love Call and Diga Diga Doo and The Mooche which topped the charts in early 1929.

Feeling the effects of the great depression that hit the United States in the early thirties, Ellington decided that his time at the Cotton Club had come to an end and that the smart move would be to take his band on tour, marking the last time that the Duke Ellington band would ever appear as a permanent feature at any venue, instead concentrating their efforts on touring and recording.

The band’s debut  tour got off to a flying start when their recording of "Mood Indigo" made it to the top five in the charts. Following hard on the  success of Mood Indigo, every single that Ellington released become  a chart hit, a phenomena that was to continue throughout the thirties, with such standards as Creole Rhapsody, Limehouse Blues, Sophisticated Lady." and the musical standard  It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing) being particularly outstanding.

 

By the end of the thirties Ellington and his orchestra had established a formula for success that appeared couldn’t be bettered.  However ever striving to improve his sound, the Duke brought in a young composer and arranger by the name of Billy Strayhorn on the season. Ellington, by then a jazz veteran at just forty, saw a rare talent in Strayhorn that he decided to  nurture.  Strayhorn’s influence on the band’s sound was almost instantaneous, improved even more when Ellington brought in two talented new members, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and bassist Jimmy Blanton.

 

 

One of the most well remembered fruits of the new collaboration was the release of Strayhorn's composed and arranged "Take the 'A' Train which is regarded by many as the greatest song that Ellington ever released.

However that golden era was to be short lived, with war clouds forming fast, the music recording strike that starved the industry for years and the illness and very premature passing of Jimmy Blanton all combined to place the Duke Ellington Orchestra   on hold for the duration of the Second World War.

The end of the war saw a change in mood in the music industry and virtually an end of the big band era in the format that it was known. The Duke was still a young man and nowhere near ready to retire. His intuitive skills told him that there was still a place for a touring band and this is what he continued to do to pay the bills, while continuing to work with Strayhorn composing, producing and arranging, whilst  building a fairly lucrative niche as a producer for movie scores.

 

 

During the fifties, there was a revival in interest in Ellington’s music seeing the band become internationally recognized and being invited to tour throughout Europe and eventually the World.

 

As a senior citizen of Jazz, Ellington’s contribution to music became increasingly recognized winning several Grammy awards in the sixties and seventies, the last in 1976,  after he passed away.  

 

 

Duke Ellington contribution to  Jazz is so large that it is difficult if not impossible to be measured. His longevity and his consistency combined with his remarkable talent and open mind made him an icon in his lifetime.

 

 

After his passing in 1974, Duke Ellington’s reputation increased with his gift to the world of music being recognized by a Pulitzer Prize Board bestowed on him posthumously in 1999 to mark the hundredth anniversary of his birth. 

 

 

Please take a moment to browse though the links below. Why not pick out a particular Duke Ellington composition, even one that you may never have heard before and relive the magical sounds of that special time in musical history.

 

 

 

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  Caravan Listen to this song on You Tube  
  Dimuendo Listen to this song on You Tube  
  FlirtiBird Listen to this song on You Tube  
  Jam with Sam Listen to this song on You Tube  
  Loveless Love Listen to this song on You Tube  
  Mood Indigo Listen to this song on You Tube  
  Perdido Listen to this song on You Tube  
  Rocking in Rythm Listen to this song on You Tube  
  St Louis Blues Listen to this song on You Tube  
  Stompy Jones Listen to this song on You Tube  
  Take the A Train Listen to this song on You Tube  
  Total Jazz Listen to this song on You Tube