Duke Ellington Biography

Edward Kennedy Ellington, 29 April 1899, Washington, DC, USA, d. 24 May 1974, New York City, New York, USA. Ellington began playing piano as a child but, despite some local success, took up a career as a sign-painter. In his teens he continued to play piano, studied harmony, composed his first tunes and was generally active in music in Washington. Among his childhood friends were Sonny Greer, Artie Whetsol and Otto Hardwicke; from 1919 he played with them in various bands, sometimes working outside the city. In 1923 he ventured to New York to work with Elmer Snowden, and the following year formed his own band, the Washingtonians. Also in 1924, in collaboration with lyricist Joe Trent, he composed the Chocolate Kiddies revue. By 1927, Ellington’s band had become established in east coast states and at several New York nightclubs. At the end of the year he successfully auditioned for a residency at Harlem’s Cotton Club. The benefits arising from this engagement were immeasurable: regular radio broadcasts from the club ensured a widespread audience and Ellington’s tours and recording sessions during the period of the residency, which ended early in 1931, built upon the band’s popularity. In the early 30s the band consolidated its reputation with extended tours of the USA, appearances in films and visits to Europe, which included performances in London in 1933. Towards the end of the decade the band returned for further seasons at the Cotton Club.

Throughout the 30s and early 40s the band recorded extensively and to great acclaim; they continued to tour and record with little interruption during the rest of the 40s and into the early 50s but, although the quality of the music remained high, the band became significantly less popular than had once been the case. An appearance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival revived their popularity, and during the rest of the 50s and the following decade Ellington toured ceaselessly, playing concerts around the world. Ellington had always been a prolific writer, composing thousands of tunes including ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’, ‘Sophisticated Lady’, ‘In A Sentimental Mood’, ‘Prelude To A Kiss’, ‘Concerto For Cootie (Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me)’, ‘Cotton Tail’, ‘In A Mellotone’, ‘I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good’, ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’, ‘I’m Beginning To See The Light’ and ‘Satin Doll’. In later years he also composed film scores, among themThe Asphalt Jungle (1950), Anatomy Of A Murder (1959), Paris Blues (1960) andAssault On A Queen (1966). More importantly, he began to concentrate upon extended works, composing several suites and a series of sacred music concerts, the latter mostly performed in churches and cathedrals. Over the years the personnel of Ellington’s orchestra proved remarkably stable, several of his sidemen remaining with him for decades. The ceaseless touring continued into the early 70s, with Ellington making few concessions to the advancing years. After his death in 1974 the orchestra continued for a time under the direction of his son, Mercer Ellington, but despite the continuing presence of a handful of survivors, such as Harry Carney, who had been in the band virtually without a break for 47 years, the spirit and guiding light was gone. From this moment, Ellington lived on through an immense recorded legacy and in the memories of musicians and an army of fans.

Ellington was born into relatively comfortable circumstances. His father had been a butler, even working for some time at the White House. The family was deeply religious and musical, and Ellington himself was very close to his parents. He reported that he was ‘pampered and spoiled rotten’, and of his parents he wrote: ‘My mother was beautiful but my father was only handsome.’ His mother was a piano player; under her influence, Ellington had music lessons from a teacher called Mrs. Clinkscales. In later life, he whimsically commented that one of the first things she taught him was never to share the stage with Oscar Peterson. Perhaps more influential than Mrs. Clinkscales were the piano players he heard in the pool-rooms, where, like any self-respecting, under-age, sharp-suited adolescent-about-town, he found his supplementary education among a diversity of gamblers, lawyers, pickpockets, doctors and hustlers. ‘At heart, ’ he said, ‘they were all great artists.’ He paid special tribute to Oliver ‘Doc’ Perry, a pianist who gave him lessons of a less formal but more practical nature than those of Mrs. Clinkscales - ‘reading the leads and recognizing the chords’. Ellington became a professional musician in his teens. One of his first engagements was playing ‘mood’ music for a travelling magician and fortune teller, improvising to suit the moment, whether serious or mystical.

In 1914 he wrote his first compositions: ‘Soda Fountain Rag’ and ‘What You Gonna Do When The Bed Breaks Down?’. By the age of 18 he was leading bands in the Washington area, having learned that the band leader, as ‘Mr. Fixit’, generally earned more money than the other members of the band. Thus, by the age of 20, he was pianist, composer and band leader: the essential Duke Ellington was formed, and would later blossom into one of the most influential musicians in jazz, although with characteristic perversity, he insisted that he wrote folk music, not jazz. By the time of the band’s debut at the Cotton Club, in addition to Greer and Hardwicke, Ellington had recruited key players such as Bubber Miley, his first great ‘growling’ trumpet player; the trombonist Joe ‘Tricky Sam’ Nanton; the bass player Wellman Braud and Carney, whose baritone saxophone formed the rich and sturdy foundation of the band’s reed section for its entire history. Perhaps just as crucial was Ellington’s meeting with Irving Mills, who became his manager. For a black musician to survive, let alone prosper, in the America of the 20s and 30s, a tough white manager was an essential safeguard.

In 1927 came the first classic recordings of ‘Black And Tan Fantasy’ and ‘Creole Love Call’, the latter with the legendary vocal line by Adelaide Hall. In these, and in up-tempo numbers such as ‘Hot And Bothered’, the Ellington method was fully formed. The conventional way to praise a big band was to say that they played like one man. The quality of the Ellington bands was that they always played like a bunch of highly talented and wildly disparate individuals, recalling the ‘great artists’ of the pool-room. The Cotton Club provided an ideal workshop and laboratory for Ellington. Situated in Harlem, its performers were exclusively black, its clientele exclusively white and in pursuit of dusky exotic pleasures. Ellington, who enjoyed being a showman, gave the audience what it wanted: music for showgirls and boys to dance to, in every tempo from the slow and sultry to the hot and hectic, coloured with so-called ‘jungle sounds’. Although this was a racial slur, Ellington had the skill and wit to transcend it, creating music that met the specification but disarmingly turned it inside-out. The music winked at the audience.

Moving into the 30s, the band’s repertoire was enriched by pieces such as ‘Rockin’ In Rhythm’, ‘Old Man Blues’, ‘The Mooche’ and, of course, ‘Mood Indigo’. Its personnel now included Juan Tizol on trombone, Cootie Williams, de facto successor to Miley on trumpet, and the sublime Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone, whose lyricism, tempered with melancholy, became a crucial element in the Ellington palette. Hodges became the most striking example of the truism ‘once an Ellingtonian, always an Ellingtonian’. Like Williams and Tizol, he would leave the band to become a leader in his own right or briefly a sideman in another band, only to return. The 30s saw the first attempts at compositions longer than the conventional three minutes (the length of a gramophone record), starting with ‘Creole Rhapsody’ in 1931. The period also saw, to oversimplify the situation, a move into respectability. Critics and musicians from the serious side of the tracks had begun to take notice. People as diverse as Constant Lambert, Percy Grainger, Leopold Stokowski and Igor Stravinsky recognized the extraordinary and unique gifts of Ellington. Phrases such as ‘America’s greatest living composer’ crept into print.

Ellington continued to refer to himself, gracefully and demurely, as ‘our piano player’. To be sure, his composing methods, from all accounts, were radically different from those of other title contenders. He would scribble a few notes on the back of an envelope, or memorize them, and develop the piece in rehearsal. The initial themes were often created by musicians in the band - hence the frequent shared composer credits: ‘The Blues I Love To Sing’ with Miley, ‘Caravan’ with Tizol, and ‘Jeep’s Blues’ with Hodges. ‘Bluebird Of Delhi’, from the 1966 ‘The Far East Suite’, was based on a phrase sung by a bird outside Billy Strayhorn’s room. Strayhorn joined the band in 1939, as arranger, composer, occasional piano player, friend and musical alter ego. A small, quiet and gentle man, he became a vital element in the Ellington success story. His arrival coincided with that of the tenor saxophone player Ben Webster, and the brilliant young bass player Jimmy Blanton, who died in 1943, aged 23. By common consent, the Webster/Blanton band produced some of the finest music in the Ellington canon, exemplified by ‘Jack The Bear’, with Blanton’s innovative bass solo, and ‘Just A-Settin’ And A-Rockin’, where Webster demonstrates that the quality of jazz playing lies in discretion and timing rather than vast numbers of notes to the square inch.

Duke Ellington was elegantly dismissive of analysis; too much talk, he said, stinks up the place. However, he was more than capable of sensitive examination of his own music. Of the haunting and plaintive ‘Mood Indigo’, he said: ‘Just a story about a little girl and a little boy. They are about eight and the girl loves the boy. They never speak of it, of course, but she just likes the way he wears his hat. Every day he comes to her house at a certain time and she sits in her window and waits. Then one day he doesn’t come. ‘Mood Indigo’ just tells how she feels.’ The story, and the tune it describes, are characteristically Ellingtonian: they bear the hallmark of true sophistication, which is audacious simplicity. His music is never cluttered, and travels lightly and politely. His output as a composer was immense. The late Derek Jewell, in his indispensable biography of the man, estimated that he wrote at least 2, 000 pieces, but, because of his cavalier way with pieces of paper, it may have been as many as 5, 000. Among them were many tunes that have become popular standards - ‘Sophisticated Lady’, ‘In A Sentimental Mood’, ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’ and ‘I’m Beginning To See The Light’ are just a selected handful. Their significance, aside from the musical, was that their royalty income effectively subsidized the band, particularly during the post-war period when the big bands virtually disappeared under successive onslaughts from inflation, the growth of television, the decline of the dancehalls and, most significantly, the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll.

Even Ellington was not immune to these pressures and in the early 50s, looking handsome suddenly became hard work. The turning-point came at the Newport Jazz Festival on 7 July 1956, when morale was low. The previous year had seen embarrassing attempts at cashing in on commercial trends with recordings of ‘Twelfth Street Rag Mambo’ and ‘Bunny Hop Mambo’, plus a summer season at an aqua show, with a string section and two harpists. The first set at Newport was equally embarrassing. Ellington arrived onstage to find four of his musicians missing. The band played a few numbers, then departed. They returned around midnight, at full strength, to play the ‘Newport Jazz Festival Suite’, composed with Strayhorn for the occasion. Then Ellington, possibly still rankled by the earlier behaviour of the band, called ‘Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue’, a piece written almost 20 years earlier and by no means a regular item on their usual concert programme. In two sections, and linked by a bridge passage from, on this occasion, the tenor saxophone player Paul Gonsalves, the piece was a revelation. Gonsalves blew 27 choruses, the crowd went wild, the band played four encores, and the news travelled around the world on the jazz grapevine; it was also reported in detail inTime magazine, with a picture of the piano player on the cover.

After Newport and until his death, Ellington’s life and career became a triumphal and global procession, garlanded with awards, honorary degrees, close encounters with world leaders and, more importantly, further major compositions. ‘Such Sweet Thunder’, his Shakespearean suite written with Strayhorn, contains gems such as ‘Lady Mac’ - ‘Though she was a lady of noble birth, we suspect there was a little ragtime in her soul’ - and ‘Madness In Great Ones’, dedicated to Hamlet with the laconic remark ‘in those days crazy didn’t mean the same thing it means now’. Further collaborations with Strayhorn included an enchanting reworking of Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker Suite’ and ‘The Far East Suite’ - still adorned with dazzling contributions from various of the now-elder statesmen in the band: Hodges, Gonsalves and Carney in the reeds, Lawrence Brown, Britt Woodman and Tizol among the trombones, and Ray Nance and Cat Anderson in the trumpet section. Astonishingly, the band that recorded the 70th Birthday Concert in England in 1969 included Carney, Hodges and Williams 40 years after they first joined Ellington, and on the record they still sounded like a group of kids having a good night on the town. The freshness and energy of the band as it tackled material played hundreds of times before, was extraordinary.

There was another side to the story. Ellington had always been a religious man, and in his later years he turned increasingly to the writing and performance of sacred music. The origins of this can be traced back to ‘Come Sunday’, from the 1945 suite ‘Black, Brown And Beige’, and beyond that to ‘Reminiscing In Tempo’, written 10 years earlier, following the death of his mother, of which he said: ‘My mother’s death was the greatest shock. I didn’t do anything but brood. The music is representative of all that. It begins with pleasant thoughts. Then something awful gets you down. Then you snap out of it and it ends affirmatively.’ From a man who was dismissive of analysis, this represented a very shrewd assessment not only of the piece in question, but of his entire output. Working within the framework of the conventional big band line-up - five reeds, four trumpets, three trombones, bass, drums and a remarkable piano player, he produced music of extraordinary diversity. His themes were startling in their simplicity, as if he had picked them off trees, and in a way, he did. The tonal qualities of the band - the unique Ellington sound - were based on a celebration of its individuals. The music might be lyrical or triumphant, elegiac or celebratory and the blues were never far away, yet it always ended affirmatively. To borrow a phrase from Philip Larkin, writing about Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington’s life and music added up to A Resounding Yes. In 1999, Ellington was awarded a Special Citation Pulitzer Prize commemorating the centenary of his birth and recognizing his ‘musical genius’ in the medium of jazz. Musical genius sits more comfortably on his shoulders, than almost anybody else in the history of popular music.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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