Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington (1899-1974) was a highly influential American composer, pianist, and bandleader of jazz music during the mid-20th century. His career spanned over 50 years, during which he composed more than 1,000 pieces of music and led his own orchestra, the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Duke Ellington rehearses for a 1973 concert in London Westminster Abbey

Ellington was born Edward Kennedy Ellington on April 29, 1899, in Washington D.C. His parents were both musicians, and he began learning piano at a young age. He dropped out of high school to pursue a career in music, playing in local bands and studying under pianist Harvey Brooks. In 1923, he moved to New York City and began performing at the famous Cotton Club, where he and his orchestra gained widespread recognition.

Duke Ellington in Berlin Tempelhof Feb 15, 1963.

Ellington’s music was characterized by his distinctive style, which blended elements of jazz, swing, blues, and classical music. He was a skilled pianist and bandleader, but he also had a talent for composition, arranging, and orchestrating. Some of his most famous works include “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Mood Indigo,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “It Doesn’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”

Duke Ellington, with Mrs. Ellington, receives the Bronx Medal from Acting Mayor Paul Screvane (left), on August 2, 1965.

Throughout his career, Ellington worked with some of the most talented musicians of his time, including saxophonist Johnny Hodges, trumpeter Cootie Williams, and bassist Jimmy Blanton. He also collaborated with artists outside of the jazz world, such as singer Rosemary Clooney and composer Billy Strayhorn.

Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington

In addition to his musical achievements, Ellington was a trailblazer in the fight for civil rights. He and his orchestra broke down racial barriers by performing at prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall and the White House, and he used his platform to advocate for equal treatment for African Americans. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969 for his contributions to American culture.

The Duke Ellington Orchestra

Ellington continued to perform and compose music until his death in 1974. His influence on jazz and popular music can still be heard today, and he is remembered as one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century.

Billie Holiday with Duke Ellington about 1950

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