Edward Kennedy Ellington, born in Washington, DC, known as “Duke” due to his love of elegance, has long been recognized as the most protean creative figure in the first five decades of jazz. As Miles Davis once commented, “Everybody ought to get down on their knees one day and thank Duke.” Other players have been as brilliant, innovative, and occasionally influential in any given decade – Davis, Armstrong, Parker, Coltrane – and certainly these players were all greater improvisers than Ellington. But his total achievement consistently evolving from the 1920s to the 1970s cannot be gainsaid.
Ellington grew up in a close family, part of the capital’s black middle class. He studied art and music while at Armstrong High and took private lessons as well as watching pianists playing around town. By 1918 he was running small bands for dances and parties, the same year he married Edna Thompson. Some of the members of his first great band were already colleagues, including Sonny Greer, Arthur Whetsol, and Otto Hardwicke. After a shaky start, Ellington and his friends settled in Ney York in spring 1923, calling themselves the Washingtonians. They hustled some club work before landing a residency at the Hollywood Club. By 1926 Harry Carney, Fred Guy, Joe Nanton, and Bubber Miley were members; the following year the band recorded classics such as “East St Louis ToodleOo” and “BlackEt Tan Fantasy,” with “The Mooche” following in 1928. That same year saw the arrival of Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams and a full year of employment at the Cotton Club, whose radio link gave Ellington wider exposure. In 1930 he enjoyed his first big hit with “Mood Indigo.” By the time Ellington left the Cotton Club in 1933 and made his first triumphant European tour, he was already a star.
Ellington prospered through the 1930s, touring across America, making movie shorts and writing hits such as “Solitude” and “Sophisticated Lady” and innovative extended works such as “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue” In 1939 composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn came aboard, bringing with him “Take The ‘A’ Train.” Other new recruits included bassist Jimmy Blanton and sax man Ben Webster. Some feel that the opening years of the 1940s were the peak of Duke’s creative development. Small masterpieces like “Concerto for Cootie,” “Ko-Ko,” “Bojangles,” “Sepia Panorama,” and “Harlem Airshaft” and the first of his suites, Black, Brown and Beige, a 50-minute work premiered at Carnegie Hall in early 1943, are prime example. Ellington kept up annual Carnegie Hall concerts where he would premiere a new major work until the end of the decade. Ellington’s was one of very few orchestras not to disband during the difficult 1947 –50 period. His innovatory role had also been usurped by bebop. The band was increasingly subsidized by Ellington’s songwriting royalties.
Like Miles Davis, Ellington may have been tempted to claim after his 1956 triumph at the Newport Jazz Festival, “I’ve never been away.” Such Sweet Thunder, The Newport Suite, The Queen’s Suite, and The Nutcracker demonstrate his renewed ambition. He was also part of Ella Fitzgerald’s Song Book series. The early 1960s saw big-band recordings with Louis Armstrong, Count Base, and Coleman Hawkins; John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Max Roach appeared in two small-group sessions. Ellington also collaborated with Frank Sinatra. His own work was uneven, The Far East Suite of 1967 being a standout; his New Orleans Suite of 1969-70 was the last major success. Ellington also mounted three Sacred Concerts in this period, before succumbing to cancer in 1974.