Duke Ellington was an eminent twentieth century African American composer and pianist. He was also a bandleader of jazz orchestras which he led from 1932 till his demise. He served the American music industry for over 50 years.
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 1899. He was raised by his parents James and Daisy Ellington, who themselves were pianist. While his mother played parlor songs, his father was more into operatic arias. At an early age of seven Duke’s parents had him assigned a piano teacher, Marietta Clinkscales, for lessons. His mother was quite concerned about teaching her son good manners and because of that she had him surrounded with dignified people. Ellington’s young friends considered him a young nobleman of refined upbringing. Despite the fact that he took piano lessons, Ellington found himself more inclined towards playing basketball. He went on to receive his higher education from Armstrong Technical High School in D.C. At Washington Senators baseball games he began to sell peanuts as his first job.
While working his summer job at the Poodle Dog Café, he wrote his first composition “Soda Fountain Rag”, in 1914. Since he still had not learned to read and write music, he composed it by ear. At first, Ellington was not quite sure if he was talented enough to master the art of playing piano like his parents. However, one day he snuck into Frank Holiday’s Poolroom where he heard the pianist playing a mesmerizing tune which ignited love of learning the instrument in him. Thus he began to take piano lessons with more vigor. Soon after, he started listening to, watching, and imitating ragtime pianists. In fact, he began to play gigs in cafés and clubs. He turned down an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn as he developed a keen interest in music and dropped out of commercial art course just a few months before his graduation. Upon which he took up a freelance sign painter job.
With time Ellington perfected his art of playing piano and eventually became a successful artist. On his journey toward success, he formed a group called “The Duke’s Serenaders” and used to perform at True Reformer’s Hall. Over the years, he also played at private society balls and embassy parties throughout Washington. When the drummer of his orchestra decided to leave for New York City, he also decided to move to Harlem leaving behind his booming career in Washington. His band played at the rent-house parties for income and shortly after they all moved back to Washington having been discouraged by the response they received. Ellington eventually gained fame at national level after his orchestra’s appearances at the Cotton Club.
Although Ellington is considered an influential figure at the jazz scene, he preferred his work not having been categorized into genres. He had seen his music more as a general category of “American Music”. Having collaborated on several music projects, Ellington created over a thousand original compositions. Furthermore, his extensive music oeuvre is deemed the largest recorded personal jazz legacy. His inventive use of the orchestra and charisma led to the elevation of the perception of jazz as an art form. Duke Ellington’s popularity grew posthumously and was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for his valuable contribution to music industry. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer and due to its complication and pneumonia, he passed away in 1974.