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Duke Ellington: Performer and Composer

The MHS Review 343 Vol. 9, No. 1 • 1985

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Duke Ellington occupied a special position in jazz; as he might have said of himself, he was "beyond category."


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Duke Ellington occupied a special position in jazz; as he might have said of himself, he was "beyond category." Born Edward Ken­nedy Ellington In Washington, D.C. on April 29, 1899 he was dubbed "Duke" by a neighbor, probably because of his well-groomed appearance. He started out by studying art at school (although he had taken up the piano, at home, at the age of seven). He struggled to make a success of music, and, despite the setback he encountered on his first trip to New York (he, Sonny Greer, and Toby Hardwicke had moved there to take up jobs with Wilbur Sweatman's pseudo-symphonic orchestra in March, 1923), he persevered; in 1924 he became the leader of the Washing­tonians. He started to write music for revues and also fronted a band which did long residences at New York's Kentucky Club. At the end of 1927 Duke moved into the Cotton Club, a booking which was to last until the ear­ly part of 1931.

Established as a band leader, Ellington was able to embark on tours and traveled to California for a time. In June, 1933 Duke brought his band to Great Britain and also played some concerts In Paris before returning home. For much of the rest of his life Duke Ellington divided his time between touring all over the United States and many other parts of the world, making records and producing a wealth of fine songs. Among the latter were Mood Indigo, In My Solitude, I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good, and Sophisticated Lady. The royalties from works such as these enabled him to compose and record less commercial music, and he was the first jazz composer to write extended works such as Creole Rhap­sody, Black Brown And Beige, the Deep South Suite, The Tattooed Bride, the Harlem Suite, and Such Sweet Thunder.

Ellington employed musicians of great in­dividuality to interpret his music, allowing them considerable scope and writing in sec­tions specifically for their unique talents. From first to last Harry Camey supplied the unique "bottom" to the band with his superb baritone playing, while soloists such as Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Ben Webster, Lawrence Brown, Juan Tizol, and Rex Stewart were to become household names due to their close association with the Duke's music. In the early 1940s the band's rhythm section contained bass player Jimmy Blanton, the man who elevated his instrument to a new level of acceptance. In the '50s and '60s the solo voices included Jimmy Hamilton (clarinet and tenor), Paul Gonsalves (tenor), and Clark Terry (trumpet); from 1939 to his death in 1967 arranger-pianist Billy Strayhorn shared the arranging and composing tasks in a man­ner which made it impossible to tell where Ell­ington ended and Strayhorn began.

There seemed to be no musical peaks which Duke failed to conquer, no honors which he did not receive. He played at the White House in Washington, on film, at jazz festivals, on television, before Queen Elizabeth II (for whom he wrote The Queen's Suite); he won every jazz poll and moved regally through every stratum of society. He wrote sacred music and performed it in cathedrals, and he made albums of his own superlative and unique piano solos. Returning to the United States after an exacting European tour at the end of 1973 he was taken ill and died in New York on May 24, 1974.

Alun Morgan's biography of Duke Ell­ington appears in The "Who's Who" of Jazz published by Verve Records.

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