Today is the 121st birthday of the musician Duke Ellington. His music is the soundtrack to the American experience. You know more Duke Ellington songs than you know. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: Duke Ellington
OCCUPATION: Pianist, Conductor, Songwriter
BIRTH DATE: April 29, 1899
DEATH DATE: May 24, 1974
EDUCATION: Armstrong Technical High School
PLACE OF BIRTH: Washington, D.C.
PLACE OF DEATH: New York, New York
PULITZER PRIZE: 1999 (special citation)
PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM: 1969
FRENCH LEGION OF HONOR: 1973
SPINGARN AWARD: 1959
GRAMMY: 1959 for Anatomy of a Murder (soundtrack)
GRAMMY: 1966 (lifetime achievement)
BIG BAND AND JAZZ HALL OF FAME: 1978
SONGWRITERS HALL OF FAME: 1971
HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME: 6535 Hollywood Blvd. (recording)
BEST KNOWN FOR: An originator of big-band jazz, Duke Ellington was an American composer, pianist and bandleader who composed thousands of scores over his 50-year career.
Born on April 29, 1899, Duke Ellington was raised by two talented, musical parents in a middle-class neighborhood of Washington DC. At the age of 7, he began studying piano and earned the nickname “Duke” for his gentlemanly ways. Inspired by his job as a soda jerk, he wrote his first composition, “Soda Fountain Rag,” at the age of 15. Despite being awarded an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, Ellington followed his passion for ragtime and began to play professionally at age 17.
In the 1920s, Ellington performed in Broadway nightclubs as the bandleader of a sextet, a group which in time grew to a 10-piece ensemble. Ellington sought out musicians with unique playing styles, such as Bubber Miley, who used a plunger to make the “wa-wa” sound, and Joe Nanton, who gave the world his trombone “growl.” At various times, his ensemble included the trumpeter Cootie Williams, cornetist Rex Stewart and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. Ellington made hundreds of recordings with his bands, appeared in films and on radio, and toured Europe on two occasions in the 1930s.
Ellington’s fame rose to the rafters in the 1940s when he composed several masterworks, including “Concerto for Cootie,” “Cotton Tail” and “Ko-Ko.” Some of his most popular songs included “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Solitude,” and “Satin Doll.” A number of his hits were sung by the impressive Ivie Anderson, a favorite female vocalist of Duke’s band.
It was Ellington’s sense of musical drama that made him stand out. His blend of melodies, rhythms and subtle sonic movements gave audiences a new experience—complex yet accessible jazz that made the heart swing. Ellington’s autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, was published in 1973. Ellington earned 12 Grammy awards from 1959 to 2000, nine while he was alive.
At the age of 19, Ellington married Edna Thompson, who had been his girlfriend since high school, and soon after their marriage, she gave birth to their only child, Mercer Kennedy Ellington.
On May 24, 1974, at the age of 75, Duke Ellington died of lung cancer and pneumonia. His last words were, “Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered.” More than 12,000 people attended his funeral. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City.
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR Cabin in the Sky (9-Apr-1943) · Himself
Reveille with Beverly (4-Feb-1943)
Belle of the Nineties (21-Sep-1934)
Murder at the Vanities (18-May-1934) · Himself
Check and Double Check (3-Oct-1930) · Himself
Appears on postage stamps: USA, Scott #2211 (22 cents, issued 29-Apr-1986)