Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington

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May 24, 1974 (Age 75) died

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April 29, 1899 Birthday

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Washington, D.C., U.S. Birthplace

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Duke Ellington was a jazz pianist and the greatest bandleader and composer of his time. Considered one of the originator's of big band jazz, he wrote thousands songs and made countless recordings. Ellington and his orchestra first gained national attention in the 1920's when they began a residency at Harlem's Cotton Club that included a weekly radio broadcast. Ellington was unique in that he tailored his compositions to take advantage of his band members' individual talents. For the next 5 decades Ellington would record and perform with his orchestra all over the world. Performing both popular songs such as "It Don't Mean a Thing (if it Ain't Got that Swing)" as well as extended suites including "Black, Brown and Beige." Some of the biggest names in jazz came through his group including Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Ben Webster and Jimmy Blanton. Ellington also scored and appeared in several films. He continued to perform regularly until his death in 1974 from pneumonia and lung cancer. Following his death his son, Mercer Ellington, took over the orchestra. Over his career Duke Ellington won 13 Grammy Awards, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was posthumously awarded a Special Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for his contributions to music and culture.


Duke Ellington got his nickname from his childhood friends who thought the name fit his stylish dress and genteel manners. Duke Ellington’s autobiography,"Music Is My Mistress", was published in 1973. Some of Duke Ellington's best known songs are; "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing", "Sophisticated Lady", "Mood Indigo", “Solitude", and "Satin Doll".

Early Life

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born in 1899 in Washington D.C. He grew up in a middle class family where both of his parents played piano. Ellington began playing the piano at age 7 and wrote his first song, "Soda Fountain Rag," at age 15. Although he had an aptitude for music, it was not his only interest. Ellington was an avid baseball fan as well as a talented artist. He studied commercial art while in high school and had earned a scholarship to the prestigious Pratt Institute, but in his teens discovered a passion for music. Ellington dropped out of school at age 17 to pursue a career in music.