Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974) was an American composer, pianist, and big band leader. Ellington wrote over 1,000 compositions. In the words of Bob Blumenthal of The Boston Globe “In the century since his birth, there has been no greater composer, American or otherwise, than Edward Kennedy Ellington.”
A major figure in the history of jazz, Ellington’s music stretched into various other genres, including blues, gospel, film scores, popular, and classical. His career spanned more than 50 years and included leading his orchestra, composing an inexhaustible songbook, scoring for movies, composing stage musicals, and world tours. Several of his instrumental works were adapted into songs that became standards. Due to his inventive use of the orchestra, or big band, and thanks to his eloquence and extraordinary charisma, he is generally considered to have elevated the perception of jazz to an art form on a par with other traditional genres of music. His reputation increased after his death and the Pulitzer Prize Board bestowed on him a special posthumous honor in 1999.
Ellington called his music “American Music” rather than jazz, and liked to describe those who impressed him as “beyond category.”These included many of the musicians who were members of his orchestra, some of whom are considered among the best in jazz in their own right, but it was Ellington who melded them into one of the most well-known jazz orchestral units in the history of jazz. He often composed specifically for the style and skills of these individuals, such as “Jeep’s Blues” for Johnny Hodges, “Concerto for Cootie” for Cootie Williams, which later became “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me” with Bob Russell‘s lyrics, and “The Mooche” forTricky Sam Nanton and Bubber Miley. He also recorded songs written by his bandsmen, such as Juan Tizol‘s “Caravan” and “Perdido” which brought the ‘Spanish Tinge‘ to big-band jazz. Several members of the orchestra remained there for several decades. After 1941, he frequently collaborated with composer-arranger-pianist Billy Strayhorn, whom he called his “writing and arranging companion.”Ellington recorded for many American record companies, and appeared in several films.
Ellington led his band from 1923 until his death in 1974. His son Mercer Ellington, who had already been handling all administrative aspects of his father’s business for several decades, led the band until his own death in 1996. At that point, the original band dissolved. Paul Ellington, Mercer’s youngest son and executor of the Duke Ellington estate, kept the Duke Ellington Orchestra going from Mercer’s death onwards.
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 to James Edward Ellington and Daisy Kennedy Ellington. Daisy and J.E. were both pianists. She primarily played parlor songs and he operatic airs. They lived with his maternal grandparents at 2129 Ida Place (now Ward Place), NW in the West End neighborhood of Washington, D.C. His father, James Edward Ellington, was born in Lincolnton, North Carolina on April 15, 1879 and moved to Washington, D.C. in 1886 with his parents. Daisy Kennedy was born in Washington, D.C. on January 4, 1879, and was the daughter of a former American slave. James Ellington made blueprints for the United States Navy. He also worked as a butler for Dr. Middleton F. Cuthbert, a prominent white physician, and occasionally worked as a White House caterer.
At the age of seven Ellington began taking piano lessons from Marietta Clinkscales. Daisy surrounded her son with dignified women to reinforce his manners and teach him to live elegantly. Ellington’s childhood friends noticed that “his casual, offhand manner, his easy grace, and his dapper dress gave him the bearing of a young nobleman”, and began calling him Duke. Ellington credited his “chum” Edgar McEntree for the nickname. “I think he felt that in order for me to be eligible for his constant companionship, I should have a title. So he called me Duke.”
“Take The “A” Train” with Ella Fitzgerald
Though Ellington took piano lessons, he was more interested in baseball. “President Roosevelt (Teddy) would come by on his horse sometimes, and stop and watch us play,” he recalled. Ellington went to Armstrong Technical High School in Washington, D.C. He got his first job selling peanuts at Washington Senators baseball games.
In the summer of 1914, while working as a soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Cafe, he wrote his first composition, “Soda Fountain Rag” (also known as the “Poodle Dog Rag”). Ellington created “Soda Fountain Rag” by ear, because he had not yet learned to read and write music. “I would play the ‘Soda Fountain Rag’ as a one-step, two-step, waltz, tango, and fox trot,” Ellington recalled. “Listeners never knew it was the same piece. I was established as having my own repertoire.” In his autobiography, Music is my Mistress (1973), Ellington said he missed more lessons than he attended, feeling at the time that playing the piano was not his talent. Ellington started sneaking into Frank Holiday’s Poolroom at the age of fourteen. Hearing the poolroom pianists play ignited Ellington’s love for the instrument and he began to take his piano studies seriously. Among the many piano players he listened to were Doc Perry, Lester Dishman, Louis Brown, Turner Layton, Gertie Wells, Clarence Bowser, Sticky Mack, Blind Johnny, Cliff Jackson, Claude Hopkins, Phil Wurd, Caroline Thornton, Luckey Roberts, Eubie Blake, Joe Rochester, and Harvey Brooks.
“It Don’t Mean A Thing”
Ellington began listening to, watching, and imitating ragtime pianists, not only in Washington, D.C., but in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, where he vacationed with his mother during the summer months. Dunbar High School music teacher Henry Lee Grant gave him private lessons in harmony. With the additional guidance of Washington pianist and band leader Oliver “Doc” Perry, Ellington learned to read sheet music, project a professional style, and improve his technique. Ellington was also inspired by his first encounters with stride pianists James P. Johnson and Luckey Roberts. Later in New York he took advice from Will Marion Cook, Fats Waller, and Sidney Bechet. Ellington started to play gigs in cafés and clubs in and around Washington, D.C. and his attachment grew to be so strong that he turned down an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1916. Three months before graduating he dropped out of Armstrong Manual Training School, where he was studying commercial art.
From 1917 through 1919, Ellington launched his musical career, painting commercial signs by day and playing piano by night. Through his day job, Duke’s entrepreneurial side came out: when a customer would ask him to make a sign for a dance or party, he would ask them if they had musical entertainment; if not, Ellington would ask if he could play for them. He also had a messenger job with the U.S. Navy and State Departments. Ellington moved out of his parents’ home and bought his own as he became a successful pianist. At first, he played in other ensembles, and in late 1917 formed his first group, “The Duke’s Serenaders” (“Colored Syncopators”, his telephone directory advertising proclaimed).He was not only a member, but also the booking agent. His first play date was at the True Reformer’s Hall, where he took home 75 cents.
Ellington played throughout the Washington, D.C. area and into Virginia for private society balls and embassy parties. The band included Otto Hardwick, who switched from bass to saxophone; Arthur Whetsol on trumpet; Elmer Snowden on banjo; and Sonny Greer on drums. The band thrived, performing for both African-American and white audiences, a rarity during the racially divided times.
When his drummer Sonny Greer was invited to join the Wilber Sweatman Orchestra in New York City, Ellington made the fateful decision to leave behind his successful career in Washington, D.C., and move to Harlem, becoming one of the figures of the Harlem Renaissance. New dance crazes like the Charleston emerged in Harlem, as well as African-American musical theater, including Eubie Blake‘s Shuffle Along. After the young musicians left the Sweatman Orchestra to strike out on their own, they found an emerging jazz scene that was highly competitive and hard to crack. They hustled pool by day and played whatever gigs they could find. The young band met Willie “The Lion” Smith who introduced them to the scene and gave them some money. They played at rent-house parties for income. After a few months the young musicians returned to Washington, D.C., feeling discouraged.
In June 1923 a gig in Atlantic City, New Jersey, led to a play date at the prestigious Exclusive Club in Harlem. This was followed in September 1923 by a move to the Hollywood Club – 49th and Broadway – and a four-year engagement, which gave Ellington a solid artistic base. He was known to play the bugle at the end of each performance. The group was called Elmer Snowden and his Black Sox Orchestra and had seven members, including James “Bubber” Miley. They renamed themselves “The Washingtonians”. Snowden left the group in early 1924 and Ellington took over as bandleader. After a fire the club was re-opened as the Club Kentucky (often referred to as the “Kentucky Club”), an engagement which set the stage for the biggest opportunities in Ellington’s life.
Ellington made eight records in 1924, receiving composing credit on three including Choo Choo. In 1925 Ellington contributed four songs to Chocolate Kiddies, an all-African-American revue which introduced European audiences to African-American styles and performers. “Duke Ellington and his Kentucky Club Orchestra” grew to a ten-piece organization; they developed their distinct sound by displaying the non-traditional expression of Ellington’s arrangements, the street rhythms of Harlem, and the exotic-sounding trombone growls and wah-wahs, high-squealing trumpets, and sultry saxophone blues licks of the band members. For a short time soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet played with the group, imparting his propulsive swing and superior musicianship to the young band members. This helped attract the attention of some of the biggest names of jazz, includingPaul Whiteman.
In 1927 King Oliver turned down a regular booking for his group as the house band at Harlem’s Cotton Club; the offer passed to Ellington. With a weekly radio broadcast and famous white clientele nightly pouring in to see them, Ellington and his band thrived in the period from 1932 to 1942, a golden age for the band.
Ellington was joined in New York City by his wife, Edna Thompson, and son Mercer in the late twenties, but the couple soon permanently separated. According to her obituary in Jet magazine, she was “[h]omesick for Washington” and returned (she died in 1967).
Although trumpeter Bubber Miley was a member of the orchestra for only a short period, he had a major influence on Ellington’s sound. An early exponent of growl trumpet, his style changed the “sweet” dance band sound of the group to one that was hotter, which contemporaries termed ‘jungle’ style. He also composed most of “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “Creole Love Call“. An alcoholic, Miley had to leave the band before they gained wider fame. He died in 1932 at the age of 29. He was an important influence on Cootie Williams, who replaced him.
In 1927 Ellington made a career-advancing agreement with agent-publisher Irving Mills, giving Mills a 45% interest in Ellington’s future. Mills had an eye for new talent and early on published compositions by Hoagy Carmichael, Dorothy Fields, and Harold Arlen. During the 1930s Ellington’s popularity continued to increase – largely as a result of the promotional skills of Mills – who got more than his fair share of co-composer credits. Mills arranged recording sessions on the Brunswick, Victor, and Columbia labels which gave Ellington popular recognition. Mills lifted the management burden from Ellington’s shoulders, allowing him to focus on his band’s sound and his compositions. Ellington ended his association with Mills in 1937, although he continued to record under Mills’ banner through to 1940.
At the Cotton Club, Ellington’s group performed all the music for the revues, which mixed comedy, dance numbers, vaudeville, burlesque, music, and illegal alcohol. The musical numbers were composed by Jimmy McHugh and the lyrics by Dorothy Fields (later Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler), with some Ellington originals mixed in. Weekly radio broadcasts from the club gave Ellington national exposure. In 1929 Ellington appeared in his first movie, a nineteen-minute all-African-American RKO short, Black and Tan, in which he played the hero “Duke”. In the same year, The Cotton Club Orchestra appeared on stage for several months in Florenz Ziegfeld‘s Show Girl, along with vaudeville stars Jimmy Durante,Eddie Foy, Jr., Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler, and with music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Gus Kahn. That feverish period also included numerous recordings, under the pseudonyms “Whoopee Makers”, “The Jungle Band”, “Harlem Footwarmers”, and the “Ten Black Berries”. In 1930 Ellington and his Orchestra connected with a whole different audience in a concert with Maurice Chevalier and they also performed at the Roseland Ballroom, “America’s foremost ballroom”. Noted composer Percy Grainger was also an early admirer and supporter.
From Vodery, as he (Ellington) says himself, he drew his chromatic convictions, his uses of the tones ordinarily extraneous to the diatonic scale, with the consequent alteration of the harmonic character of his music, its broadening, The deepening of his resources. It has become customary to ascribe the classical influences upon Duke – Delius, Debussy and Ravel – to direct contact with their music. Actually his serious appreciation of those and other modern composers, came after his meeting with Vodery.
As the Depression worsened, the recording industry was in crisis, dropping over 90% of its artists by 1933. Ellington and his orchestra survived the hard times by taking to the road in a series of tours. Radio exposure also helped maintain popularity. Ivie Anderson was hired as their featured vocalist. Sonny Greer had been providing occasional vocals and continued to do in a cross-talk feature with Anderson. Ellington, however, later had many different vocalists, including Herb Jeffries (until 1943) and Al Hibbler (who replaced Jeffries in 1943 and continued until 1951).
Ellington led the orchestra by conducting from the keyboard using piano cues and visual gestures; very rarely did he conduct using a baton. As a bandleader Ellington was not a strict disciplinarian; he maintained control of his orchestra with a crafty combination of charm, humor, flattery, and astute psychology. A complex, private person, he revealed his feelings to only his closest intimates and effectively used his public persona to deflect attention away from himself.
While the band’s United States audience remained mainly African-American in this period, the Cotton Club had a near-exclusive white clientele and the Ellington orchestra had a huge following overseas, exemplified by the success of their trip to England in 1933 and their 1934 visit to the European mainland. The English visit saw Ellington win praise from members of the ‘serious’ music community, including composer Constant Lambert, which gave a boost to Ellington’s aspiration to compose longer works. For agent Mills it was a publicity triumph, as Ellington was now internationally known. On the band’s tour through the segregated South in 1934, they avoided some of the traveling difficulties of African-Americans by touring in private railcars. These provided easy accommodations, dining, and storage for equipment while avoiding the indignities of segregated facilities.
The death of Ellington’s mother in 1935 led to a temporary hiatus in his career. Competition was also intensifying, as African-American and white swing bands began to receive popular attention, including those of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Carter, Earl Hines, Chick Webb, and Count Basie. Swing dancing became a youth phenomenon, particularly with white college audiences, and “danceability” drove record sales and bookings. Jukeboxes proliferated nationwide, spreading the gospel of “swing”. Ellington band could certainly swing, but Ellington’s strengths were mood and nuance, and richness of composition; hence his statement “jazz is music; swing is business”. Ellington countered with two developments. He made recordings of smaller groups (sextets, octets, and nonets) drawn from his then-15-man orchestra and he composed pieces intended to feature specific instrumentalist, as with “Jeep’s Blues” for Johnny Hodges, “Yearning for Love” for Lawrence Brown, “Trumpet in Spades” for Rex Stewart, “Echoes of Harlem” for Cootie Williams and “Clarinet Lament” for Barney Bigard.
“I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart”
In 1937 Ellington returned to the Cotton Club which had relocated to the mid-town theater district. In the summer of that year, his father died, and due to many expenses, Ellington’s finances were tight. Things improved in 1938 and he met and moved in with Cotton Club employee Beatrice “Evie” Ellis. After splitting with agent Irving Mills, he signed on with the William Morris Agency. The 1930s ended with a very successful European tour just as World War II loomed.
Ellington delivered some huge hits during the 1930s, which greatly helped to build his overall reputation. Some of them include: “Mood Indigo” (1930), “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (1932), “Sophisticated Lady” (1933), “Solitude” (1934), “In a Sentimental Mood” (1935), “Caravan” (1937), “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” (1938). “Take the “A” Train” which hit big in 1941, was written by Billy Strayhorn.
Strayhorn, originally hired as a lyricist, began his association with Ellington in 1939. Nicknamed “Swee’ Pea” for his mild manner, Strayhorn soon became a vital member of the Ellington Organization. Ellington showed great fondness kept the Duke Ellington Orchestra going for Strayhorn and never failed to speak glowingly of the man and their collaborative working relationship, “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine”. Strayhorn, with his training in classical music, not only contributed his original lyrics and music, but also arranged and polished many of Ellington’s works, becoming a second Ellington or “Duke’s doppelganger”. It was not uncommon for Strayhorn to fill in for Duke, whether in conducting or rehearsing the band, playing the piano, on stage, and in the recording studio.
The band reached a creative peak in the early 1940s, when Ellington and a small hand-picked group of his composers and arrangers wrote for an orchestra of distinctive voices who displayed tremendous creativity.
Some of the musicians created a sensation in their own right. The short-lived Jimmy Blanton transformed the use of double bass in jazz, allowing it to function as a solo rather than a rhythm instrument alone. Ben Webster, the Orchestra’s first regular tenor saxophonist, started a rivalry with Johnny Hodges as the Orchestra’s foremost voice in the sax section. Ray Nance joined, replacingCootie Williams (who had “defected”, contemporary wags claimed, to Benny Goodman). Nance, however, added violin to the instrumental colors Ellington had at his disposal.
Three-minute masterpieces flowed from the minds of Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s son Mercer Ellington, Mary Lou Williamsand members of the Orchestra. “Cotton Tail“, “Main Stem”, “Harlem Airshaft”, “Sidewalks of New York (East Side, West Side)”, “Jack the bear”, and dozens of others date from this period.
Privately made recordings of Nance’s first concert date, at Fargo, North Dakota, on November 7, 1940 by Jack Towers and Dick Burris, are probably the most effective display of the band during this period. These recordings, later released as Duke Ellington at Fargo, 1940 Live, are among the first of innumerable live performances which survive, made by enthusiasts or broadcasters, significantly expanding the Ellington discography.
“All Of Me”
Ellington’s long-term aim became to extend the jazz form from the three-minute limit of the 78 rpm record side, of which he was an acknowledged master. He had composed and recorded Creole Rhapsody as early as 1931 (issued as both sides of 12″ record for Victor and both sides of a 10″ record for Brunswick), and his tribute to his mother, “Reminiscing in Tempo,” had filled four 10″ record sides in 1935; however, it was not until the 1940s that this became a regular feature of Ellington’s work.
In this, he was helped by Strayhorn, who had enjoyed a more thorough training in the forms associated with classical music than Ellington. The first of these, “Black, Brown, and Beige” (1943), was dedicated to telling the story of African-Americans, and the place of slavery and the church in their history. Ellington debuted Black, Brown and Beige inCarnegie Hall on January 23, 1943, beginning a series of concerts there suited to displaying Ellington’s longer works. While some jazz musicians had played at Carnegie Hall before, few had performed anything as elaborate as Ellington’s work.
Unfortunately, starting a regular pattern, Ellington’s longer works were generally not well-received. Jump for Joy, a full-length musical based on themes of African-American identity, debuted on July 10, 1941 at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles. Although it had the support of the Hollywood establishment, and received mostly positive reviews, its socio-political outlook provoked a negative reaction among some members of the public. It ran for 122 performances until September 29, 1941, with a brief revival in November of that year. Its subject matter did not make it appealing to Broadway, despite Ellington’s plans to take it there.
The settlement of the first recording ban of 1942–43 had a serious effect on all the big bands because of the increase in royalty payments to musicians which resulted from it. The financial viability of Ellington’s Orchestra came under threat, though Ellington’s income as a songwriter ultimately subsidized it. Ellington always spent lavishly and although he drew a respectable income from the Orchestra’s operations, the band’s income often just covered expenses.
The music industry’s focus shifted away from the Big Bands to the work of solo vocalists such as the young Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday and mainstream groups like The Andrews Sisters as World War II drew to a close. While Ellington had featured some of the most talented singers of the day fronting his orchestra, he and his band took a back seat to no one, which set him down a path that put him increasingly at odds with the growing recording industry which was profiting from celebrity singers who were cheaper to keep than a big band, and produced bigger revenues.
By the mid 1940s, artists were creatively changing. One of Ellington’s composer-arrangers, Mary Lou Williams, left Ellington in 1943 and by 1945 was working with Dizzy Gillespie on a new form of jazz music, “Bebop.”
Bebop rebelled against mainstream jazz and the strict forms of which Ellington was perhaps its most well known standard-bearer. The music, which had redefined the American sound over 35 years, was about to be shaken up.
It would take another ten years for Bebop to begin catching on with jazz aficionados world-wide, but it was an early hit with club owners of smaller venues who could draw the jazz form’s growing audiences in New York City at a fraction of the cost of hosting a big band, particularly one of Ellington’s caliber. Newer, smaller bands and splinter forms of music increasingly put pressure on the bigger clubs who paid out increasingly more to maintain their big bands. Ellington’s elite band was a costly enterprise that, along with his excessive personal spending, always teetered on the brink of break-even. The new music trends eventually pushed it over the edge and put Ellington out on the road in search of venues that could afford to showcase his music.
Bebop was also a huge shift for young talent, from Charlie Parker to John Coltrane to Thelonious Monk who did not embrace Big Band and sought out new creative frontiers, redefining “modern” jazz music forever. Ellington did not recruit or embrace these new artists and change with the times.
In 1950, another emerging musical trend, the African-American popular music style known as Rhythm and Blues driven by a new generation of composers and musicians like Fats Domino drew away young audiences from both the African-American and white communities, and ultimately unified those audiences as R&B morphed into Rock & Roll which expanded the cults of the singers from the Big Band era to the singer/songwriters from Domino to Elvis Presley to Buddy Holly. Again, Ellington did not embrace the new musical form, leaving him further in the growing dust cloud of musical history.
Ellington continued on his own course through these tectonic shifts in the music business. He did not wholly resist trends while trying to turn out major works. The Kay Davis vocal feature “Transblucency” was an attempt to cater to the singer-centric music world. He still performed major extended compositions such as Harlem (1950), whose score he presented to music-loving President Harry Truman, but these works were rapidly becoming reflections of his greatness in the 1930s and 1940s, and not ground-breaking works that rattled the music world back into the Big Band camp.
In 1951, Ellington suffered a major loss of personnel, with Sonny Greer, Lawrence Brown, and most significantly Johnny Hodges, leaving to pursue other ventures. Lacking overseas opportunities and motion picture appearances, Ellington’s Orchestra survived on “one-nighters” and whatever else came their way.
By the summer of 1955 the band was performing for six weeks at the Aquacade in Flushing, New York, where Ellington is supposed to have “invented” a drink known as “The Tornado,” the only alcoholic concoction that features his signature Coca-Cola and sugar.
Ellington’s hope that television would provide a significant new outlet for his type of jazz was not fulfilled. Tastes and trends had moved on without him. The introduction of the 33 1/3 rpm LP record and hi-fi phonograph though, did give new life to many of his older compositions. However by 1955, after three years of recording for Capitol, Ellington no longer had a regular recording affiliation.
The music business’ increasing factionization into specific forms of rock-and-roll, country, bluegrass, or jazz broke down into even more sub-sets, and opened the door for the second act in Duke Ellington’s career. An international fascination with Jazz re-opened the door at record labels to artists like Ellington and Louis Armstrong who had found themselves out of step with the times for the last half-decade. The Ellington who was too big or too proud to change would now appear with a variety of artists from the different jazz forms.
Ellington’s appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956 returned him to wider prominence and exposed him to new audiences. The feature “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue“, with saxophonist Paul Gonsalves‘s six-minute saxophone solo, had been in the band’s book since 1937, but on this occasion nearly created a riot. The revived attention should not have surprised anyone – Hodges had returned to the fold the previous year, and Ellington’s collaboration with Strayhorn had been renewed around the same time, under terms more amenable to the younger man. Such Sweet Thunder (1957), based on Shakespeare’s plays and characters, and The Queen’s Suite, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II, were products of the renewed impetus which the Newport appearance helped to create.
A new record contract with Columbia produced Ellington’s best-selling LP Ellington at Newport and yielded six years of recording stability under producer Irving Townsend, who coaxed both commercial and artistic productions from Ellington. In 1957, CBS (Columbia’s parent corporation) aired a live television production of A Drum Is a Woman, an allegorical suite which received mixed reviews. Festival appearances at the new Monterey Jazz Festival and elsewhere provided venues for live exposure, and a European tour in 1958 was wildly received.
After a 25-year gap, Ellington (with Strayhorn) returned to work on film scores, this time for Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Paris Blues (1961). Ellington and Strayhorn, always looking for new musical territory, produced adaptations of John Steinbeck‘s novel Sweet Thursday,Tchaikovsky‘s Nutcracker Suite and Edvard Grieg‘s Peer Gynt. The late 1950s also saw Ella Fitzgerald record her Duke Ellington Songbookwith Ellington and his orchestra—a recognition that Ellington’s songs had now become part of the cultural canon known as the “Great American Songbook“.
Detroit Free Press music critic Mark Stryker concludes that the work of Billy Strayhorn and Ellington in Anatomy of a Murder, the trial court drama film directed by Otto Preminger in 1959, is “indispensable, [although] . . . too sketchy to rank in the top echelon among Ellington-Strayhorn masterpiece suites like Such Sweet Thunder and The Far East Suite, but its most inspired moments are their equal.” Film historians have recognized the soundtrack “as a landmark – the first significant Hollywood film music by African Americans comprising non-diegetic music, that is, music whose source is not visible or implied by action in the film, like an on-screen band.” The score avoided the cultural stereotypes which previously characterized jazz scores and rejected a strict adherence to visuals in ways that presaged the New Wavecinema of the ’60s”.
In the early 1960s, Ellington embraced recording with artists who had been fierce rivals of the past, or who had been young artists from the Bebop beginnings whom he did not associate with. The Ellington and Count Basie orchestras recorded together. During a period when he was between recording contracts he made records with Louis Armstrong (Roulette), Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane (both for Impulse) and participated in a session with Charles Mingus and Max Roach which produced the Money Jungle (United Artists) album.
Ironically, the singer most responsible for setting off the changes that brought an end to the big band era became Ellington’s salvation. He signed to Frank Sinatra‘s new Reprise label. Musicians who had previously worked with Ellington returned to the Orchestra as members: Lawrence Brown in 1960 and Cootie Williams in 1962.
The international mania for jazz reinstated Ellington as one of the highest earning artists in jazz. He performed all over the world; a significant part of each year was now spent making overseas tours.
He formed notable new working relationships with international artists from around the world, including the Swedish vocalist Alice Babs, and South African musicians Dollar Brandand Sathima Bea Benjamin (A Morning in Paris, 1963/1997).
His earlier hits became big sellers in the rediscovery of the music world-wide, earning Ellington impressive royalties.
“The writing and playing of music is a matter of intent…. You can’t just throw a paint brush against the wall and call whatever happens art. My music fits the tonal personality of the player. I think too strongly in terms of altering my music to fit the performer to be impressed by accidental music. You can’t take doodling seriously.”
Ellington was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1965, but was turned down. His reaction at 67 years old: “Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be famous too young.” In September of the same year, the first of his Sacred Concerts was given its premiere. It was an attempt to fuse Christian liturgy with jazz, and even though it received mixed reviews, Ellington was proud of the composition and performed it dozens of times. This concert was followed by two others of the same type in 1968 and 1973, known as the Second and Third Sacred Concerts. This caused controversy in what was already a tumultuous time in the United States. Many saw the Sacred Music suites as an attempt to reinforce commercial support for organized religion, though Ellington simply said it was, “the most important thing I’ve done.” TheSteinway piano upon which the Sacred Concerts were composed is part of the collection of the Smithsonian‘s National Museum of American History. Like Haydn and Mozart, Ellington conducted his orchestra from the piano – he always played the keyboard parts when the Sacred Concerts were performed.
Ellington continued to make vital and innovative recordings, including The Far East Suite (1966), the New Orleans Suite(1970), and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (1971), much of it inspired by his world tours. It was during this time that Ellington recorded his only album with Frank Sinatra, entitled Francis A. & Edward K. (1967).
Ellington was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966. He was later awarded several other prizes, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, an Honorary PhD from the Berklee College of Music in 1971, and the Legion of Honor by France in 1973, the highest civilian honors in each country.
Ellington’s film work began in 1929 with the short film Black and Tan. Symphony in Black (1935) featured his extended piece ‘A Rhapsody of Negro Life’. It introduced Billie Holiday, and won an Academy Award as the best musical short subject. He also appeared in the Amos ‘n’ Andy film Check and Double Check (1930). Ellington and his Orchestra continued to appear in films through the 1930s and 1940s, both in short films and in features such as Murder at the Vanities and Belle of the Nineties (1934), and Cabin in the Sky (1943). In the late 1950s, his work in films took the shape of scoring for soundtracks, notably Anatomy of a Murder (1959), with James Stewart, in which he appeared fronting a roadhouse combo, and Paris Blues(1961), which featured Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier as jazz musicians.
He wrote an original score for director Michael Langham‘s production of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada which opened on July 29, 1963. Langham has used it for several subsequent productions, most recently in an adaptation by Stanley Silverman which expands the score with some of Ellington’s best-known works.
Ellington composed the score for the musical Jump For Joy, which was performed in Los Angeles during 1941. Ellington’s sole book musical, Beggar’s Holiday, was staged on Broadway in 1946. Sophisticated Ladies, an award-winning 1981 musical revue, incorporated many tunes from his repertoire.
Ellington married his high school sweetheart, Edna Thompson, on July 2, 1918, when he was 19. Shortly after their marriage, on March 11, 1919 Edna gave birth to their only son,Mercer Kennedy Ellington. Mercer played trumpet, led his own band and worked as his father’s business manager, eventually taking full control of the band after Duke’s death. He was an important archivist of his father’s musical life.
Ellington’s sister Ruth (1915–2004) later ran Tempo Music, Ellington’s music publishing company. Ruth’s second husband was the bass-baritone McHenry Boatwright, whom she met when he sang at her brother’s funeral.
Ellington’s eldest grandson Edward Kennedy Ellington II also is a musician and maintains a small salaried band known as the Duke Ellington Legacy, which frequently comprises the core of the big band operated by The Duke Ellington Center for the Arts. Ellington died of lung cancer and pneumonia on May 24, 1974, a month after his 75th birthday, and was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York City. At his funeral attended by over 12,000 people at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Ella Fitzgerald summed up the occasion, “It’s a very sad day. A genius has passed.” Mercer Ellington picked up the reins of the orchestra immediately after Duke’s death. Ellington’s last words were, “Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered.”
Sources: wikipedia, youtube, imdb.com, nmdb.com