Jazz Legend. Jazz composer, bandleader and pianist, often reffered to as America’s most prolific composer of the twentieth century. His written contributions are almost innumerable: thousands of songs and dozens of works in symphonic form, as well as complete scores for ballet, theater and film. His artistic development and sustained achievement are among the most spectacular in the history of music. Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born in April of 1899 into a black middle-class family in Washington, D.C. he was nicknamed “Duke” because of the flashy way he liked to dress. Ellington studied piano as a child but showed no particular ability until he was enrolled into the Armstrong Manual Training School. He learned to read music, worked on his technique, and began playing at clubs and cafes.
In 1917, Ellington formed his first group, the Duke’s Serenaders and in 1923, they moved to New York, renamed themselves the Washingtonians working off and on four years at the Kentucky Club before moving on to become the house band of Harlem’s renowned Cotton Club (1927-1932). From 1924, when he put his name on the band-Duke Ellington and his Washingtonians produced a great quanity of music for exactly fifty years. And through that bands ranks passed some of the greatest instrumentalists who ever played jazz. Ellington spent much of his professional career in motion-traveling with his band from one performance to the next, composing aboard trains, planes, automobiles and living out of suitcases in an endless series of hotel rooms as he took his music to audiences across the globe. Ellington composed many works specifically to feature the distinctive sounds of such soloists as clarinetist Barney Bigard, Saxophonists Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges and trumpeter Cottie Williams. Ellington’s popular favorites included “Mood Indigo,” “Solitude,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “In A Sentimental Mood,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Satin Doll,” “Black, Brown and Beige,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” and “Come Sunday”. The end of the big-band era in the 1940’s took its toll on the Ellington orchestra, and as worked dried up Ellington was forced to turn to royalties from his popular songs to keep the band afloat, a situation which was later reversed. Ellington also appeared in numerous films and was the first African-American composer to write a film score (for Anatomy of a Murder).
When he reached his sixties, an age at which many contemplate retirement, Ellington kept up the relentless schedule of composing, performing, recording and traveling he had followed for over thirty years. During this time Ellington was deservedly showered with awards, prizes, sixteen honary degrees and celebrated both at home and abroad for his musical achievements. These awards included the presentation of the keys to the city of Los Angeles in 1936, the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP in 1959, The President’s Gold Medal by President Lyndon B. Johnson (1966), the Pied Piper Award (1968), the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Richard Nixon (1969), the Legion of Honor by the country of France (the countries highest award), a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (6535 Hollywood Blvd.) and thirteen Grammy’s. Duke Ellington and his band remained popular until his death in New York on May 24, 1974 at the age of 75.