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​Duke Ellington - Piano Solo

​Duke Ellington Orchestra - Switzerland (1959)

​Duke Ellington - Mini Bio

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington   1899-1974










President Richard Nixon gave him the Medal of Freedom.  The African country of Togo printed a postage stamp in his honor.  Columbia University made him a honorary Doctor of Music.  He was called "America's jazz ambassador" and "the greatest single talent in the history of jazz."  He was Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, a composer, band leader, and musical pioneer.

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, D.C.  His parents were Daisy and James Edward (J.E.) Ellington.  His father, Duke once said, "always lived like a millionaire even when he had no money."  J.E. sometimes worked two jobs to support the family.

As a youngster, Edward had a great deal of artistic talent.  In high school, he had desires of becoming a painter.  He even won a scholarship to study art.  It was also in high school that he earned the nickname "Duke" because of his style of dress.  All his life, Duke was known for his good manners and elegant style.

Duke began playing the piano at the age of seven.  Ragtime was his favorite music.  In high school, he composed his first tune, the Soda Fountain Rag.  Soon it became clear that music was to be his life.  He was 19 when he formed his first band, Duke's Serenaders.

Duke also got married when he was 19.  His wife, Edna Thompson Ellington, had been one of his schoolmates.  Their son Mercer, was born in 1919.  Another child, born later that year, died while still a baby.

By 1923, Duke Ellington had moved to New York City.  He and his band played at the Kentucky Club in Harlem.  From there Duke and his band moved to the famous Cotton Club.  They soon became the main attraction.  Over the years, many great artists got their start playing under the direction of the Duke.  Ellington also became known as the "King of the Swing."

Duke Ellington composed over 900 songs.  Some of them are remembered as the best songs ever written.  Mood Indigo, Don't Get Around Much Any More, Solitude, and Sophisticated Lady were just four of his great tunes.  His theme song was Take the A Train.  The "A" train was the subway line that ran from downtown New York up to Harlem.

In 1933, Duke Ellington and his band traveled through Europe.  It was the first of many foreign trips they would make.  In his later years, Duke's trips were sponsored by the U.S. government.  The State Department sent him to Russia, Africa, Latin America, Australia, and Japan.

Everywhere Duke Ellington went, he taught people to love jazz.  He also inspired many young people to learn to play it.  He and his musicians made hundreds of recordings and appeared on radio programs, in movies, and later on television.

Ellington was a pioneer in composing jazz works for classical orchestras.  Among his compositions were Creole Rhapsody, Harlem, and Night Creatures.  Black, Brown, and Beige Suite was another set to a choral poem.  His composition of My People was his tribute to his race.  Today, jazz is studied and played by some of the world's best musicians.  Ellington helped to bring this change about.

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington died in 1974, at the age of 75.  His music and memory lives on.  His son Mercer still leads the Duke Ellington Big Band.  And, we can still enjoy Duke's smooth, stylish music on records, tapes, and even home videos.  For years to come, jazz musicians will continue to play his songs.


Excerpt from A Gift of Heritage Historic Blacks in the Arts.


This is only a summary of the life of the Great Musician Duke Ellington.