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Top 10 Facts About Duke Ellington

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was a jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader from the United States. He is considered one of the finest jazz composers and a prolific performer.

Ellington was a significant force for about 50 years, and he excelled in every domain. He did all this while touring continuously with his band, which never dissolved throughout his career.

Most of his instrumental pieces set standards for others and were later turned into songs. Considered a significant figure in the history of jazz music, he preferred to refer to his work as ‘American Music’ rather than jazz. Ellington is regarded as one of the era’s most influential jazz musicians.

How many songs did Ellington write?

Duke Ellington is known for more than 3000 songs he wrote during his lifetime.

What did Ellington call his music?

Duke Ellington calls his music “American music” rather than jazz.

How old was Duke Ellington when he started playing the piano?

He started playing the piano at seven and began composing at 15.

What were Duke Ellington’s last words?

Ellington died on May 24, 1974. His final words were, “Music is how I live, why I live, and how I will be remembered.”

How long did Duke Ellington play at the Cotton Club?

Duke Ellington led the group from 1927 to 1930 and occasionally for eight years.

10. Childhood and the Early Years

Duke Ellington Publicity photo
Duke Ellington Publicity photo

Duke Ellington was born in Washington, D.C., on April 29, 1899. Daisy Kennedy, his mother, was the daughter of two previously enslaved Americans.

His parents were pianists; Daisy liked parlor music, while James Edward Ellington chose operatic melodies. His family, like other families, fostered racial pride and encouraged him as a child.

When he was seven years old, Ellington began taking piano lessons from Marietta Clinkscales. Ellington’s first composition, “Soda Fountain Rag,” was written in 1914.

He composed the piece by ear because he had yet to receive an education in music.Henry Lee Grant, a music instructor at Dunbar High School, taught him harmonizing privately.

His devotion to music was so intense that he rejected an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in 1916. He began performing professionally at 17 after being inspired by ragtime artists.

9. Ellington’s Personal Life and Marital Relationship

Mildred Dixon companion of Duke Ellington
Mildred Dixon companion of Duke Ellington

Ellington married Edna Thompson, his high school love, when he was 19. Soon after their marriage, Edna got pregnant with their only son, Mercer Kennedy Ellington.

In his late twenties, Ellington was accompanied to New York City by his wife and son, soon divorced. Mildred Dixon, who influenced songs like “Sophisticated Lady,” accompanied him on his travels and raised his kid.

He left his family and settled in with Beatrice “Evie” Ellis in 1938. He soon began an affair with Fernanda de Castro Monte. Ellington kept supporting both women for such entire life.

Ellington’s mother’s death was indeed the darkest day of his life. He was practically paralyzed by sadness. Mercer, his son, stated he never wore brown following his mother’s death because he wore it when she died.

Ellington died on May 24, 1974, a few weeks after his 75th birthday, following lung cancer and pneumonia complications.

8. Duke Ellington Homage and Tribute

Ellington on the Washington DC quarter released in 2009
Ellington on the Washington DC quarter released in 2009

Ellington was the first African-American to be depicted on a circulating U.S. coin. Throughout New York to California, several tributes have been given to him.

Ellington is featured on the Washington, D.C. quarter sitting at a piano, sheet music in hand and the district’s slogan “Justice for All” inscription. Ellington’s image appeared on a commemorative stamp issued by the United States in 1986.

The Duke Ellington Orchestra’s album Digital Duke, attributed to Duke and his son Mercer, won the Grammy Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album in 1988.

Like the Count Basie Orchestra, continued to record C.D.s for many years after Duke’s death. Artists and musicians have explored his compositions as inspirations and a foundation for their professional careers.

“The Duke” by Dave Brubeck (1954) became a standard covered by others, notably Miles Davis on his Miles Ahead album in 1957. Miles Davis dedicated his half-hour hymn “He Loved Him Madly” (on Get Up with It) to him one month after Ellington’s death.

7.Career and Development

Duke Ellington at the Hurricane Club May 1943
Duke Ellington at the Hurricane Club May 1943

Ellington’s first band, “The Duke’s Serenaders,” performed 75 cents a week at the True Reformer’s Hall.

Otto Hardwick, a childhood friend who began on string bass and then switched to alto saxophone, was in the band, as were Arthur Whetsel on trumpet, Elmer Snowden on banjo, and Sonny Greer on drums.

They performed both for African Americans and white people, which was unusual in the segregated culture of the time. Greer was a member of the Wilber Sweatman Orchestra in New York City, where they hustled bars by day and played whatever gigs they might find.

Before coming to Hollywood and the Kentucky Club, the band performed at upscale clubs in Harlem and Atlantic City. Sidney Bechet briefly joined the band, but he strained relations with Miley and trombonist Charlie Irvis.

In 1925, he produced four songs to the all-African American musical Chocolate Kiddies, which exposed European listeners to African American music and performers.

6. Participation at Cotton Club

Ellington poses with his piano at the KFG Radio Studio
Ellington poses with his piano at the KFG Radio Studio

Duke Ellington led the group from 1927 to 1930 and occasionally for eight years. Ellington reached an agreement with agent-publisher Irving Mills in October 1926, giving Mills a 45 percent stake in his prospects. Mills booked sessions on practically every label, including Columbia’s lower-priced labels.

In 1927, King Oliver rejected a regular booking as the house band at Harlem’s Cotton Club. Ellington had to expand from a six-piece to an eleven-piece ensemble to suit his management’s standards for the audition.

The engagement ultimately began on December 4. Thanks to a weekly radio broadcast, the Cotton Club’s predominantly white and wealthy customers rushed in nightly to see them.

Bubber Miley was an early proponent of the growling trumpet, transforming the group’s pleasant dance band sound into the louder Jungle Style. He wrote most of “Creole Love Call” and “Black and Tan Fantasy.”

Miley, an alcoholic, had to leave the band before achieving broader popularity, but he significantly influenced Cootie Williams, who took his place.

Ellington’s cinematic career began with Black and Tan (1929), a 19-minute RKO short in which he played the hero “Duke.” In 1930, he starred in the Amos’ n’ Andy picture Check and Double Check.

5. The Early and Late 1930s for Ellington

James Stewart and Ellington in Anatomy of a Murder
James Stewart and Ellington in Anatomy of a Murder

Ellington joined with Brunswick primarily in 1932 and remained with them until late 1936. In 1931, Ivie Anderson was appointed as the Ellington Band’s main vocalist. She sings, “It Don’t Mean a Thing.”. The recordings of this time include: “Mood Indigo” (1930), “Sophisticated Lady” (33), and “Solitude” (34).

The music industry was in turmoil as the Depression progressed, losing more than 90% of its performers by 1933. Ellington made his British debut at the London Palladium on June 12, 1933. They were one of 13 artists on the lineup, each with only eight brief pieces.

Ellington began recording with smaller groups (sextets, octets, and nonets) selected from his then-15-man orchestra in 1936. Duke Ellington hired Billy Strayhorn as a lyricist in 1939, and he stayed with him since the end of the decade.

He was called “Swee’ Pea” for his gentle nature and quickly rose through the group’s ranks. The decade came to a close with a productive European tour in 1939, just as World War II was looming in Europe.

4. Ellington in the early to mid-1940s

Duke Ellington Orchestra East St Louis Toodle Oo
Duke Ellington Orchestra East St Louis Toodle Oo

Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster, two musicians who joined Ellington, became sensations in their own right. Duke Ellington recruited Jimmy Blanton before he heard his name in 1939.

The band’s first consistent tenor saxophonist was Ben Webster. After about two years in the band, he was forced to leave due to terminal illness in late 1941.

Ray Nance replaced Cootie Williams in Duke Ellington’s touring orchestra in 1940. On November 7, 1940, Nance recorded his first concert in Fargo, North Dakota. After 11 years, Ivie Anderson resigned for health concerns in 1942, and Al Hibbler stayed till 1951.

In the 1940s and early 1950s, Bill Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and their orchestra members recorded for Victor Records. Hundreds of songs from this era include “Cotton Tail,” “Main Stem,” “Harlem Air Shaft,” “Jack the Bear,” and many more.

Never No Lament, a three-CD compilation of commercial music from this era, was released in 2003. Ellington intended to expand on the jazz form’s three-minute constraint, of which he was a recognized practitioner.

On January 23, 1943, Black, Brown, and Beige made their Carnegie Hall debut, kicking off a series of yearly Ellington concerts. Sadly, his more extended compositions were widely unappreciated, establishing a trend.

The resolution of the first recording ban, which lasted from 1942 to 1944, had a significant impact on the financial sustainability of the prominent bands.

3. Duke Ellington’s Postwar Years

Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Duke Ellington just had undergone one of his most economically and artistically successful eras of the early 1940s. He preserved much of his orchestra intact during the war and maintained a high public presence through concerts and broadcasts.

He’d scored a big hit with “I’m Beginning to See the Light” in late 1944, and when people returned home as the war ended in 1945. The big bands continued to ride the wave of popularity that had sustained since the mid-1930s.

During WWII, the mainstream of popular music shifted to artists like Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford. Ellington’s new pieces, such as the wordless vocal piece “Transblucency” (1946), would not have the same impact as the newly emerging stars.

Artist like Count Basie was compelled to disband his entire ensemble and work as an octet for a period, but Ellington was able to enter most of Western Europe between April 6 and June 30, 1950.

2. The resurrection of Ellington’s career

Ellington in 1973
Ellington in 1973

Ellington’s career took off after his band’s appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956. It brought him back into the spotlight and exposed him to a growing jazz listeners community.

Ellington’s performance at the festival garnered international headlines and resulted in a record that went on to become Ellington’s best-selling long-playing Disc.

Soon after, Duke Ellington and his orchestra made their television debut with “A Drum Was a Woman” in 1957. Sweet Thunder and The Queen’s Suite were among the following works based on Shakespeare’s plays and characters.

Anatomy of a Murder was the first major Hollywood film music written by African Americans. Ellington embraced recording with artists who had previously been friendly rivals or were young musicians who focused on the latest techniques in the early 1960s.

Ellington collaborated with Charles Mingus, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and John Coltrane.

After WWII, the Ellington band often toured Europe; it also performed in Asia (1963–64, 1970), West Africa, South America, Australia, and North America. Ellington also traveled and performed in Kabul, Afghanistan.

1. Full enthusiasm in later years

Ellington receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Nixon
Ellington receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Nixon

In 1965, Duke Ellington premiered the first of his Sacred Concerts, a jazz Christian liturgy. These sparked debates when the United States was already in turmoil.

Many saw it as an attempt to reinforce commercial support for organized religion. Since the 1960s, he had been touring the world and recording frequently, including his only album with Frank Sinatra.

Among the last shows he played were Sturgis, Michigan, and Eastbourne, England, which were later released on L.P. In 1999, he was posthumously honored with a special Pulitzer Prize “commemorating his birth centennial year.”


Duke Ellington’s work influenced more than five decades, during which he wrote thousands of songs for the stage, movie, and current songbook. Duke Ellington performed in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia over his fifty-year career.

He is well known for the nearly 3000 songs he wrote during his lifetime. “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Mood Indigo,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Solitude,” “In a Mellotone,” and “Satin Doll” are among them.

He produced one of the most distinct group sounds in Western music and continued to perform what he referred to as “American Music” until he died in 1974.

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