The Life and Times of Duke Ellington Essay

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 by parents James Edward (JE) Ellington and Daisy Kennedy of Ward Place, NW, Washington, DC. Their neighborhood which consists of 30 percent blacks is part of a social and commercial district along U Street and was the most flourishing among other African-American district in this part of the state. Right after the civil war in America and the emancipation of the slaves more blacks came to Ward Place hoping they can find opportunities and leave out poverty from their war torn areas.

Most of them found jobs to minor government positions while others worked as servants to the number of bars and restaurants flourishing in the city. This is a much better job than picking cottons or working on hard labors from their former masters. But of the accumulated 96,000 blacks’ population in this suburb there were only forty policemen to handle the city’s bulging population and one of them is James Edward Kennedy Ellington popularly known as “JE”. When JE was able to acquire government position after his police service, he was able to buy his own house and the Ellington’s came to belong to the middle class families in NW neighborhood.The younger Edward did not grow up experiencing hardship as compared to other kids born of immigrant peasants’ families. He grew up being pampered by his aunts and cousins.

His mother regularly took him to their Baptist Church at 19th Street and to his grandfather’s Zion Church where he meet singers and choirs singing different religious hymns and music. Rock of Ages and Onward Christian Soldiers were the usual songs sang on these churches. JE and Daisy are good pianists and regularly play for parties at home which somehow influenced young Edward to take an interest with the piano. Edward started taking lessons at the age of seven with a local teacher but during his adolescence years, he became more interested with sports, games and with girls.

He goes to poolrooms when he was 14 lying about his age so he can watch pool players and listen to the pianist playing at the bar.Ellington was able to study design and art and at the same time taking in a summer job as a dishwasher at Asbury Park, New Jersey during which he was able to listen to different Washington pianists hired by the park. This is where he met most of his friends who encouraged him to listen to the music of Harvey Brooks. Suddenly a spark of interest with the piano and music rekindled in him.

His made his first composition entitled ‘Soda Fountain Rag’ to test if he could be good at it and he end up following it with ‘What You Gonna Do When the Bed Breaks Down?”. Since then he was always the life of the parties and began to be invited to different occasions. He began to like the parties not only of the glamour but also because as he always say there would always be a pretty girl standing down at the bass clef end whenever he is at the piano (Bradbury, 2005).

It was said that learning the piano was just the result of an accident to Ellington. Because of his love with baseball when he was a kid, he was accidentally hit in the head by a baseball bat which alarmed his mother. To get him off the neighborhood’s kids, his mother took him to piano lessons. But as an active child he was more interested with playing baseball than playing the keyboard. There were even times that Ellington recalled that he and his friends were always watched by President Theodore Roosevelt during their baseball game. With his love for the game, he also took a job at the stadium selling popcorn and hotdogs.

Ellington studied mechanical drawing and painting and as a student he showed good talent for drawing and in arts. He won the award for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for his poster which earned him a college scholarship in the arts. However, he did not take advantage of it because he met Edgar McEntree, a classmate who wants to socialize with people that has gathered prestigious titles. Ellington became friends with McEntree which the latter called him “Duke” for his sophisticated dressing, self confidence and aristocratic manner. McEntree invited Duke at a senior party to play although Duke was just a freshman.Duke played his own composition What Do You Do When The Bed Breaks Down.

The crowd felt ecstatic and Duke realized this is going to be his world and nothing more. Getting on to a higher level of interest, Duke loses his passion for sports but nevertheless did not abandon his studies. Most of the time he would be invited by ladies to play for their parties and Duke love the idea of sticking it out with the piano than swinging the bat. His high school music teacher, Henry Grant, seeing Duke’s talent offered free private music lessons to Duke where he learned the formal side of music, its theory and harmony.But one of the most influential places where Duke learned in recognizing his talent is at Frank Holliday’s poolroom.

As Duke listened from many musicians he learned to pick up tricks and technique. Here he met Perry, an enthusiastic young man but got a ripe talent than Duke. Perry also saw the great enthusiasm in Duke and teaches him more acquaintance with jazz music. It was in this period when Duke started to reinvent himself and developing his own style in piano jazz. He learned to play music by changing a bit of its mood and tempo especially when he encounters difficult pieces.

However it goes he makes the outcome always outstanding. Playing for the parties became his bread and butter but unfortunately he has only two compositions at hand.When Louise Thomas, a popular ragtime pianist in one of the occasion saw Duke, he offered him to play for one of his gig bands and that was the beginning of Duke’s plunge to bigger music.

He learned to improvise music according to specific mood and sometimes invite other musician to invent styles to perk up their music. Most of the musicians he worked with also became the members of his first band.  He broke away from Thomas’s groups and set up his own music agency which usually lines up five different bands to do gigs for him. He also embarked on small sign painting business and makes his own signs for the promotion of his band during parties. Duke has learned from many of his gigs different style and tempo with the piano and able to meet popular artist who has contributed to his learning career on music (Smith, 1992).In 1923, Ellington move to New York equipped with the talent of a pianist, bandleader, songwriter and composer. He formed The Washingtonians and The Kentucky Club and played at the Cotton Club for eleven years intensifying his experience in helping singers and dancers in refining his orchestration and composition that would later be his trademark. His bands survived successfully from 1927 until 1931 and during that period CBS regularly played their music and broadcast events of Duke’s band anywhere they go in New York.

In 1930, Ellington composed the piece Mood Indigo followed by Creole Rhapsody in 1931. With these hits, it was followed by Sophisticated Lady in 1933 and Solitude in 1934. The Washingtonians became more popular and always led in the national popularity contests and readers’ pools sponsored by magazines and newspapers. Over the next 40 years, Ellington’s career was a success and was recognized as one of America’s leading musicians in his era. With all his tours he always gathers large international audience who love his music.

More bandleaders tried to copy Ellington’s style but no one came to close with his superb style and elegance in music. He was able to achieve honors and awards with his Music is My Mistress which was released in 1973, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969 and became honorary degrees of fifteen universities and colleges, keys given as an important person to cities like Niigata in Japan, Birmingham, Alabama and Amsterdam in Holland. He was also awarded an International Humanist Award in 1972 for his contribution in “global public service” (Tucker, 1995).Starting in 1943, Duke and his orchestra had their series of concerts at the Carnegie Hall in which they played his original compositions. Some of his works were “extended compositions” that usually run for more than 45 minutes for each music. People realized that Duke’s orchestra was the best among the legendary musicians during that period and claimed that his good selection of members was the key to the orchestra’s success.

Duke displayed how great jazz piano he is and how good he is in writing jazz songs. He also made musicals for ballets and film scoring for famous movies. On his 70th birthday, Duke was invited by President Nixon at the White House and this was the time he was honored the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This recognition fits only those who have greatly influenced other people based on their art and works that encouraged self-expression, integrity and individuality (Kids, 2005).The music of Duke Ellington has introduced a new level of style and sophistication in the early era of jazz music.

Duke is recognized as one of the greatest piano player ever to conquer the world of jazz developing his skill as a professional piano player during his years in Washington, D.C. His technique was greatly influenced by his pianist James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith.

His band The Washingtonians played at The Hollywood Club in Manhattan and discovered the unique plunger mute style of playing which they play into music entitled East St. Louis Toodle-Oo. In 1924, his band recorded Choo Choo (Gotta Hurry Home) and Rainy Nights (Rainy Days). The band made it big when Irving Mills became their manager and so in 1927, Duke and his band re-recorded versions of East St. Louis Toodle-Oo and debut with the music Black and Tan Fantasy and Creole Love Call. In 1930, Ellington co-write Mood Indigo and It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) is also one of their greatest hits.His career has been active throughout the 40’s and 50’s to which they produced Jazz standards such as “Take the ‘A’ Train”, “Perdido”, “The ‘C’ Jam Blues” and “Satin Doll”.

Duke also wrote pieces of religious music such as “The Far East Suite”. He also played with legendary musicians like Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Lous Armstrong. Though in the 70s some of his band members already died, the band did not lose its attraction and outstanding musicians volunteer to be members.  Sadly, Duke Ellington died of cancer in 1974 leaving his legacy and reins of his band to his son Mercer (VERVEMUSICGROUP, 1995).

ReferencesBradbury, D. (2005). Duke Ellington (illustrated ed.

): Haus Publishing. Retrieved from, P. (2005). Duke Ellington. Retrieved from

htmlSmith, K. (1992). Duke Ellington (illustrated ed.): Holloway House Publishing. Retrieved from, M.

(1995). Ellington: The Early Years (reprint, illustrated ed.): University of Illinois Press. Retrieved from http://books. (1995). Edward “Duke” Ellington.

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