By the time of his passing, he was considered amongst the worlds greatest composers and musicians. The French government honored him with their highest award, the Legion of Honor, while the government of the United States bestowed upon him the highest civil honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He played for the royalty and for the common people and by the end of his fifty-year career, he had played over 20,000 performances worldwide. He was The Duke, Duke Ellington.
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born into the world on April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C. Dukes parents Daisy Kennedy Ellington and James Edward Ellington served as ideal role models for young Duke and taught him everything from proper table manners to an understanding of the emotional power of music. Dukes first piano lessons came around the age of seven or eight and appeared to not have that much lasting effect upon him. It seemed as if young Duke was more inclined to baseball at a young age. Duke got his first job selling peanuts at Washington Senators baseball games. This was the first time Duke was placed as a “performer” for a crowd and had to first get over his stage fright. At the age of fourteen, Duke began sneaking into Frank Hollidays poolroom. His experiences from the poolroom taught him to appreciate the value in mixing with a wide range of people. As Dukes piano lessons faded into the past, Duke began to show a flare for the artistic. Duke attended Armstrong Manual Training School to study commercial art instead of an academically-oriented school. Duke began to seek out and listen to ragtime pianists in Washington and during the summers, where he and his mother vacationed in Philadelphia or Atlantic City. While vacationing in Asbury Park, Duke heard of a hot pianist named Harvey Brooks. At the end of his vacation Duke sought Harvey out in Philadelphia where Harvey showed Duke some pianistic tricks and shortcuts. Duke later recounted that, “When I got home I had a real yearning to play. I hadnt been able to get off the ground before, but after hearing him I said to myself, Man youre going to have to do it.” Thus the music career of Duke Ellington was born.
Duke was taken under the wings of Oliver “Doc” Perry and Louis Brown who taught Duke how to read music and helped improve his overall piano playing skills. Duke found piano playing jobs at clubs and cafes throughout the Washington area. Three months shy of graduation, Duke dropped out of school and began his professional music career.
In late 1917, Duke formed his first group: The Dukes Serenaders. Between 1918 and 1919, Duke made three significant steps towards independence. First, he moved out of his parents home and into a home he bought for himself. Second, Duke became his own booking agent for his band. By doing so, Ellingtons band was able to play throughout the Washington area and into Virginia for private society balls and embassy parties. Finally, Duke married Edna Thompson and on March 11, 1919, Mercer Kennedy Ellington was born.
In 1923, Duke left the security that Washington offered him and moved to New York. Through the power of radio, listeners throughout New York had heard of Duke Ellington, making him quite a popular musician. It is also in that year that Duke made his first recording. Ellington and his renamed band, The Washingtonians, established themselves during the prohibition era by playing at places like the Exclusive Club, Connies Inn, the Hollywood Club (Club Kentucky), Ciros, the Plantation Club, and most importantly the Cotton Club. Thanks to the rise in radio receivers and the industry itself, Dukes band was broadcast across the nation live on “From the Cotton Club.” The bands music along with their popularity spread rapidly.
In 1928, Ellington and Irving Mills signed an agreement in which Mills produced and published Ellingtons music. Recording companies like Brunswick, Columbia, and Victor came calling. Dukes band became the most sought after band in the United States and even throughout the world.
Some of Ellingtons greatest works include, Rockin in Rhythm, Satin Doll, New Orleans, A Drum is a Women, Take the “A” Train, Happy-Go-Lucky Local, The Mooche, and Crescendo in Blue.
Duke Ellington and his band went on to play everywhere from New York to New Delhi, Chicago to Cairo, and Los Angeles to London. Ellington and his band played with such greats as Miles Davis, Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, and Louis Armstrong. They entertained everyone from Queen Elizabeth II to President Nixon. Before passing away in 1974, Duke Ellington wrote and recorded hundreds of musical compositions, all of which continue to have a lasting effect upon people worldwide for a long time to come.