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Duke Ellington Tuesday, 27 April, 1999, 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK
The birth of a jazz king
At an early age, Edward Kennedy Ellington earned the nickname Duke for his slick wardrobe. But on the centenary of his birth Duke Ellington is remembered by millions of fans as one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century.

Duke Ellington
Ellington, perhaps more than any other jazz musician, transcends the traditional barriers which separate jazz from other musical styles. To honour his birthday on 29 April, hundreds of concerts are being held around the world.

Ellington's instrument and compositional tool was the band, not just the piano, trumpet or saxophone.

He created a unique approach to creating harmonic textures and sounds using all the voices and range of tones available in a full jazz ensemble of brass, saxophones and rhythm sections.

He was to lead and compose music for his band across six decades. A remarkable achievement on its own. But Ellington's ability to innovate and adapt to new musical styles proved immense.

No jazz please, we're the Ellingtons

Born in Washington DC, Duke Ellington's story is not one of a child in the black American ghetto. His family was among the small percentage of African-Americans that had made it into the middle classes.

Duke received piano lessons as a youngster but failed to be inspired by the instrument. It was not until his teens that the then-popular ragtime style moved the young Ellington to return the piano with a renewed intent to learn.

While his upwardly mobile parents favoured classical music, jazz was his passion.

After school he set out as a signwriter but he played for small ensembles after work. It was not long before he was running his own band, the embryonic Duke Ellington and his Washingtonians.

It was from this small outfit that the Ellington orchestra was to emerge. His education and American idealism taught him that anything was possible. And although Ellington was quickly a leading figure in the Washington jazz scene he to really make it, he had to cut his teeth in the Big Apple.

He made the move and soon was on his way.

In the late 1920s, he was booked to play a long residency at the prestigious Cotton Club, in New York's Harlem. This high-profile Cotton Club proved a springboard for Ellington and his band, garnering them attention of emerging radio networks that would broadcast events live across much of the nation.

Bebop revolution

The band went from strength-to-strength until it hit the buffers in the late 1940s and 1950s.

This was to prove something of a relatively lean period as musical fashions changed. The main protagonist was Bebop, a kind of punk of jazz.

Fast and furious, it threw out a swing approach and was played by small ensembles instead of large orchestras. Its most famous musicians included: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Theolonius Monk.

Ellington was one of the most famous frontmen of his time
Ellington's band lost some of its appeal and being a large ensemble was economically ill-equipped. But his fortunes were revived unexpectedly - almost miraculously - in 1956 with a now legendary appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island.

The band went on stage late one evening with the Duke himself in a foul mood. But after a momentous solo performance by Paul Gonsalves, they left amid rapturous applause and new-found popularity.

Elder statesman

By the sixties Duke Ellington had become more of an elder statesman and was revered around the globe as he performed with his in-demand band.

He revelled in the high life, something which came naturally, to this high-living, aristocratic figure.


Over the decades, until Ellington's death on 24 May 1974, his band included some of the great names of jazz. They were to play a vast list of masterpieces including Mood Indigo, Black and Tan Fantasy, In a Mellotone, Ko-Ko, Cottontail, Caravan, Harlem Air Shaft, and, of course, Take the A-Train.

What enabled Ellington to use his band so imaginatively was the relative stability of his musicians.

Ellington's personality was as colourful as his music
Some players stayed for decades and their presence allowed him to write for the talents of his players. Pieces were crafted not only to the strengths of sections but individuals within the band. The band became far more eclectic and flexible as a musical instrument than its competitors.

Nearly all Ellington's life was lived on the road. His career took him to all parts of the globe, throughout Europe to the Soviet Union and Iran.

Monarchs and heads of state became acquaintances of the Duke's as his band became a global phenomenon.

Despite his grand social circles, the tools of his trade remained more immediate. The back of menus and old envelopes became the manuscript for some of his best work which was often written while travelling or in dressing rooms before and after performances.

Duke Ellington bought sophistication and dignity to his music. His phenomenal output of highly original work has formed an unrivalled body of music. Some say no-one else in jazz has ever matched him.

Main Stem: Recorded 1942, in Hollywood
Duke Ellington appears on the Michael Parkinson show in 1973
Ko-Ko: Recorded in 1940, an Ellington classic
Ellington describes his early years at the Cotton Club
Ellington writes a song fit for the Queen
Links to more Duke Ellington stories are at the foot of the page.

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Links to more Duke Ellington stories

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