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American Composers and Musicians from A to Z: E (Part 1 – Ellington, Duke)

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Continuing our series of American composers from A to Z, we come to the letter E. Personally, I can think of no better example than Duke Ellington. I consider him to be one of the first great quintessential “American” composers of his time, who wrote music in a true American idiom, rather than copying Western European composers (I would group him in with Charles Ives, as well as Scott Joplin and Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who both came the generation before).

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born in Washington, DC in 1899, and while growing up he took piano lessons. It wasn’t until he was in his teens, however, that Ellington began to focus more on his musical studies, due in no small part to the jazz and ragtime performances at Frank Holiday’s Pool Hall. By 1917 Ellington had created his first group, “The Duke’s Serenaders,” and the group was a common sight at society events at the Washington DC embassies and other private residences.

Soon after, the Serenaders’ drummer Sonny Greer accepted an invitation to join the Wilber Sweatman Orchestra in New York City, and Ellington decided to follow shortly thereafter, moving into Harlem. After gigging around the fairly competitive music scene in New York at the time, Ellington made an agreement with Irving Mills in 1926 and began producing records on labels such as Brunswick, Columbia, Victor, and others. This led to his music gaining wider recognition, and by the next year his band had been asked to play at the Cotton Club, the famous Harlem jazz club.

The contract with the Cotton Club ended in 1931, but Ellington’s band did not. It was after this period that Ellington wrote and recorded many of his best-known compositions, including “Mood Indigo” (1930), “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (1932), “Sophisticated Lady” (1933), “Solitude” (1934), and “In a Sentimental Mood” (1935). It was during this time that Ellington met and began working closely with lyricist and arranger Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn quickly became Ellington’s right-hand man, and the duo worked together until the 1950s.

New York, New York. Duke Ellington's orchestra playing for dancers at the Hurricane. Photo by Gordon Parks, April 1943.
New York, New York. Duke Ellington’s orchestra playing for dancers at the Hurricane. Photo by Gordon Parks, April 1943.

Ellington sought to have jazz recognized in the same realm as classical music, and one of his first “crossover” compositions, “Black, Brown, and Beige,” written for a jazz orchestra, debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1943. He also composed the musicals Jump for Joy and Beggar’s Holiday, although neither did exceptionally well with the public.

Although the band did not record nearly as much in the 1950s and 1960s as they had in the previous decades, the Ellington Orchestra was still a major touring success, and the band’s touring career remained prominent for the rest of Ellington’s life, especially after his appearance at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival. Ellington was also still composing, having written the longer-form compositions The Far East Suite, The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, and Latin American Suite all in his later years. Ellington performed his last shows in 1973 at Purdue University. He passed in 1974 due to complications from lung cancer and pneumonia.

If you would like to learn more about Duke Ellington, you can check out his autobiography Music is My Mistress in audio (DB 66574) and large print from the music section (LPM00253).

Braille Music

Giants of Jazz Piano (BRM35937, 3 vol.): includes various jazz compositions, including “Drop Me Off in Harlem,” “The Jeep is Jumping,” and “Rockin’ in Rhythm” for piano.

Caravan (BRM27688): for piano and voice

Duke Ellington Anthology (BRM36259, 3 vol.): contains over fifty Duke Ellington songs for piano and voice.

Mood to Be Wooed/Three O’Clock Jump (BRM13419): for tenor saxophone

Large print Music

Satin Doll (LPM00790): for piano, with chord symbols and words

Digital Talking Book

Things Are Just Like They Used To Be (DBM00980): A recording about Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. The pieces “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “Perdido” are featured.

Please contact the music section about ordering this material!

Comments (2)

  1. The article is not entirely accurate I am afraid.
    The Cotton Club was not a jazz club but a night club restricted to white audiences. Ellington’s revival at Newport was 1956 not 1965. He and Strayhorn collaborated not just into the 1950’s but until Strayhorn’s death in 1967.

    • Dear Clyde,

      Thank you for your comment. These inaccuracies have been edited in the blog post.

      Katie Rodda

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