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

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. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d13223

New York, New York. Duke Ellington’s orchestra playing for dancers at the Hurricane. Photo by Gordon Parks, April 1943. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d13223

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!

Carnegie Hall of the South: Nashville’s Musical Legacy, Part 2

This is the second half of a two-part post on Nashville’s musical history and related books in the NLS Music Collection. Read the first part here: Athens of the South: Nashville’s Musical Legacy, Part 1. Nashville’s most famous music venue, the Ryman Auditorium, was completed in 1892 and was originally a church called the Union […]

Athens of the South: Nashville’s Musical Legacy, Part 1

Here in the Music Section of the National Library Service we are counting down the days until the National Conference of Librarians Serving Blind and Physically Handicapped Individuals begins next month in Music City, Nashville, Tennessee! As I mentioned in my last article, I’ve been taking the opportunity to learn about the musical history of […]

American Composers and Musicians from A to Z: D (Part 2 – Davis, “Blind” John and Dranes, Arizona)

Blind John Davis Blind John Davis was born in Mississippi in 1913, but moved to Chicago with his family at a young age.  He lost his sight shortly thereafter at age 9. He began to learn the piano as a teen, and later became a regular session musician for famous blues record producer Lester Melrose […]

Music City 101: NLS Heads to Nashville!

Last month country music legend Dolly Parton joined Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden in a presentation to celebrate the achievements of Parton’s book-gifting organization (video of the event available here). They announced that the Library of Congress Young Readers Center is partnering with Parton’s charity to provide a special series of story time events. […]

NLS Music Magazine Roundup!

The following is a guest blog post by new Music Reader Services librarian Lindsay Conway. Did you know that the National Library Service offers subscriptions to music magazines, free of charge to NLS patrons? The NLS Music Section produces Musical Mainstream, Contemporary Soundtrack, and Popular Music Lead Sheets. NLS also offers free subscriptions to five […]

Celebrating that “Parisienne Gaiety”

When I was a teenager, I began learning about classical music by listening to radio programs in the evening. Often the shows would begin with an overture or “light classic”, such as the Light Cavalry Overture (which our school band played), or the William Tell Overture (the “Lone Ranger” to me). There was also a […]

Back to School: Method Books Edition (Part 2)

Last week, we detailed method books in the collection for wind instruments. This week, we are highlighting method books in our collection for string instruments and percussion, with some jazz method books thrown in for good measure! If there is anything here that could be useful to you or your student, please don’t hesitate to […]

Back to School: Method Books Edition (Part 1)

Although for most of us it still feels like the middle of summer outside, it is time for many folks to begin thinking about back-to-school, and the new books and supplies for the year. That, of course, includes books for music classes, band, and orchestra. In the past, we’ve discussed books for college students, and […]

The Soul of the Saxophone

In the space of just two weeks, musicians and music-lovers remember the life and death of two of the most famous saxophonists known to the world: Eric Dolphy, who passed away on June 29th, 1964 and Albert Ayler, who was born on July 13th, 1936. Each of them left an indelible mark on the world, […]