Personalities | Duke Ellington | Twenties | Jazz & Blues
Universally acknowledged as one of the twentieth century’s emblematic composers, Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington used his long-standing touring orchestra as a tool to create wholly unique tonal colours and a distinctive harmonic language in jazz.
His career was characterized by the close and long-lasting relationships that he struck up with particular musicians and other figures from the music business, which brought a certain stability to his various periods of creativity. From the late 1920s to the early 1970s he composed many tunes that have become standards, as well as exquisite three-minute jazz concertos, dance-band repertoire, popular suites, sacred concerts, revues, tone poems and film soundtracks. His most famous titles – including ‘Mood Indigo’, ‘Satin Doll’, ‘Sophisticated Lady’ and ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’ – have become embedded in the English language.
The Duke Makes His Name
Born in Washington, DC on 29 April 1899, Ellington enjoyed a stable, middle-class upbringing that gave no hint of his future as one of the pivotal figures in jazz music. His childhood piano lessons were abandoned due in part to his unwillingness to learn to read music, and of all the arts it was at painting that he excelled. When he began to take an interest in music, in his later high-school years, he found that he could get by with a mixture of his own intelligence, inventiveness and the little piano schooling he had received. Nicknamed ‘Duke’ for his dapper appearance, he composed his first pieces – ‘Soda Fountain Rag’ and the risqué blues ‘What You Gonna Do When The Bed Breaks Down?’ – as a teenager and in 1919 formed his first group, the Duke’s Serenaders.
The beginnings of the Ellington band began to take shape under the leadership of banjo player Elmer Snowden. As the ripples of the Harlem Renaissance began to spread, Ellington felt the call of New York as the newly established centre of burgeoning black culture, and the hub of creative opportunity. His first visit there proved unsuccessful, but on the second attempt a chance meeting with a fellow Washington, DC musician resulted in a gig at Barron’s, and by 1923 Ellington had settled in Harlem. From Barron’s the band, which included drummer Sonny Greer and saxophonist Otto Hardwick, moved on to a residency at the Hollywood Inn, a club on Times Square where the clientele was of a higher calibre and the pay packets decidedly more substantial.
The Jazz Influence Creeps In
Although the Duke’s background was not in jazz, he began to absorb influences from ragtime piano players and other popular performers of the day, including Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and James P. Johnson, the father of Harlem stride piano. Still, the repertoire of the Washingtonians, as they had named themselves, was centred mainly around pop and dance numbers until the sound of New Orleans was also introduced to the band during their time at the Hollywood Club – in the form of James ‘Bubber’ Miley,...
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