Continuing our theme celebrating African American culture, we turn our attention to Duke Ellington, arguably the greatest and most charismatic jazz composer and bandleader of the 20th Century.
Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974) was a pianist and leader of a jazz orchestra from 1923 until his death in 1974. He found fame in the 1920s, through his orchestra’s residence at the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York and was a prolific songwriter, writing over 1000 compositions.
Duke Ellington late 1960s
He gained his nickname ‘Duke’ when he was a child, through his polite manner and dapper dress. His parents Daisy and James, both pianists, taught him to play the piano as a child, however, is wasn’t until he was a teenager that he began to take his music seriously, being inspired by ragtime pianists of the era.
Ellington began his career playing at society balls and parties in Washington DC and Virginia, until in the early 1920s, when he moved to Harlem in New York to join the emerging Jazz scene and cultural revolution.
Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club 1928
In June 1923 Ellington landed a gig at the Exclusive Club in Harlem, which led to a 4-year tenure at the Hollywood Club (later the Kentucky Club), at the centre of the Harlem Renaissance. Ellington took over as bandleader of the Kentucky Club orchestra in 1924 and in 1926, signed with an agent-publisher Irving Mills, who had an eye for new talent, which enabled him to record music, which would eventually make him world-famous.
Duke and his Orchestra at the Cotton Club, 1930s
In 1927, Ellington auditioned for a residency at the Cotton Club in Harlem, which also offered a weekly radio broadcast that would enable his music to reach a national audience. His music drew crowds to the Cotton Club to see Ellington and his band play. In October of that year, Ellington and his Orchestra recorded several compositions with Adelaide Hall, one of which, ‘Creole Love Song’ became his first global hit.
Billie Holliday in 'Symphony in Black' 1935
Ellington and his Orchestra recorded prolifically during the 1930s, releasing songs such as 'It don't mean a thing (If it ain't got that swing)' (1932) and writing music for Hollywood. In 1935, Paramount pictures released a 9-minute film ‘Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life’ featuring Duke Ellington and Billie Holliday, which launched Holliday’s career.
Duke Ellington in 'Symphony in Black' 1935
By the early 1940s, the war made touring almost impossible and as the cost of hiring big bands increased, club owners turned to smaller groups, that were cheaper. Though Ellington successfully toured Western Europe during 1950, the following years proved difficult as big band music fell out of favour.
'It don't mean a thing (If it ain't got that swing)' - 1932
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In July 1956, Ellington made an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival. The ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue’ comprised 2 tunes separated by a tenor saxophone solo. The crowd went wild and the concert made international headlines. This led to Ellington being featured on the cover of Time magazine. The album that resulted from this appearance became the biggest selling of Ellington’s career.
Duke recording 'Anatomy of a Murder' soundtrack, 1961
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ellington found success writing musical scores for Hollywood films, notably Otto Preminger's ‘Anatomy of Murder’ featuring James Stewart and ‘Paris Blues’ (1961), starring Paul Newman. Ellington continued to write music and perform worldwide throughout the 1960s up until his death in 1974.
Ellington and Billie Holliday 1930s