Otto. Cutey. Stinkpot. Wucker. Dumplin’. Maestro. Big Red. Head Knocker. Puddin’. These are some of the many nicknames given the man born Edward Kennedy, whom we all know as “Duke” Ellington. Born April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C., Ellington was one of the great jazz bandleaders, pianists, and composers. The Music Division is home to the Valburn/Ellington Collection, which contains photos, music, and memorabilia encompassing the vast and storied career of this jazz legend. See photos of Ellington and friends in the William P. Gottlieb Collection in American Memory, where you can read more about Ellington on Today in History: April 29.
If you live in Washington DC, you can remember Duke on his birthday simply by wandering the streets of the town he called home for the first few decades of his life. The Ellington influence is still felt today in the Shaw neighborhood where he was born, and particularly along the U Street corridor, once the site of Washington’s own Harlem Renaissance and, after years of neglect, again a vital, prospering neighborhood. You can also attend an Ellington birthday concert in Georgetown at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, inspiration for the movie Fame and countless creative lives.
But wherever you are, celebrate Duke Ellington’s birthday with the music. The only question is where to start with such a vast catalog? Try the Blanton-Webster band that introduced “Take the ‘A’ Train,” or go back to the twenties, with Bubber Miley’s plunger-mute trumpet (doesn’t its very name spark your curiosity?) on “East St. Louis Toodle-oo”, or move forward decades to the great 1956 set at Newport with Paul Gonsalves’ famous 27-chorus tenor saxophone solo on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.”
Finally, read Ellington’s memoir, Music is my mistress, where you’ll learn that his first formal training in music came from a woman with the impossibly Dickensian name of Marietta Clinkscales.
Happy Birthday Duke Ellington!