Black History Month: Duke Ellington
Jazz has long been known as the “smooth” genre of music. The brass instruments blended with the strings of guitars and the keys of the piano are a top choice of critics all over the world. One pioneer of this early 1900s form of music was Duke Ellington. He composed over a thousand of original jazz pieces and today, continues to have one of the most distinctive sounds in music history. The complexity of his melodies enlightened the masses.
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 in the District of Columbia. Unlike the majority of the African American families in D.C. at that time, he was born into a middle-class family. His parents were both pianists, with his father playing regularly for the White House. They regularly advocated for their son to have the best childhood growing up, despite the implementation of the “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws.
Ellington’s music education began at the age of 7 where he quickly developed an inclination for the instrument, as well as elegance and noble manners. Noting this behavior, his friends started calling him “Duke,” which is where his eventual title originated. Ellington composed his first piece of music in 1914 at the young age of 15. He wrote this composition by ear, because he noted that he missed more piano lessons than he attended, feeling that the piano was not his instrument of choice. However, within the following months, Ellington snuck into a pool room where more advanced and talented pianists performed and attended more lessons as he was inspired by their work.
Ellington dropped out of high school 3 months before he was supposed to graduate and turned down an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. He formed a music group and played with his band, The Washingtonians, throughout the greater Washington D.C. and Virginia area until 1923, where he and his band relocated to New York City. They gained popularity at The Hollywood Club in Times Square where they played for 4 years and released their first single in 1927. The band relocated their residency to The Cotton Club in Harlem as the Renaissance was blooming. During his career, which lasted over a century, he composed several hits such as “It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing” and “Satin Doll.” His band played all over the world in venues ranging from pool parlors to mass stadiums. His success earned him 12 Grammy Awards and numerous honors among musical legends. Unfortunately, his declining health forced him to abruptly stop performing, but even after, he continued to write music for the rest of his band to perform.
Duke Ellington died because of complications from lung cancer on May 24, 1974. Over 12,000 attended his funeral in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx region of New York City.