Written by Katy Myers
Duke Ellington was among the most prolific composers of the twentieth century and is arguably one of the most famous and influential jazz musicians of all time. His musical innovations are so ever-present and timeless that if you’ve played or listened to any jazz in the last 50 years, it most likely contained influences from Duke Ellington. He took big band music, which was primarily for dancing, and turned it into an art form in and of itself - still danceable, but created for the sake of art, spirituality, and social change.
Born as Edward Kennedy Ellington on April 29, 1899, in Washington, D.C., Duke got his nickname from a childhood friend because of his impeccable manners and suave nature. Ellington grew up in a tight-knit, middle-class family in Washington, D.C., where his father was a butler (on occasion, in the White House). From a young age, Ellington’s mother, a pianist herself, oversaw his musical education. By the time Ellington moved from Washington D.C. to New York City in 1923, he had established himself as both a pianist and composer. (1)
In 1924, Duke formed his first band, “The Washingtonians.” They were relatively unique among top big bands in that Ellington was not only the band leader but the primary composer. The Washingtonians gathered a small following of fans, and in 1927 secured a recurring gig at The Cotton Club in Harlem, a whites-only music venue where black performers entered through the back door and were not allowed to interact with white customers. The band had a successful four-year run at the Cotton Club until 1931 when Duke left the club and took his show on the road, a tour that ended up lasting the rest of his life.
Touring, whether in the United States or abroad, was a complicated and dangerous endeavor for a Black band in the 1930’s and 1940’s. When touring in the South, Ellington and his bandmates endured “whites only” signs and harassment from locals, often needing to stay at Black-owned boarding houses. Ellington rented a private train car to transport himself and his band, to avoid the poorly-maintained “colored seating” on the public trains.
When touring in the north, there may not have been any “whites only” signs, but that did not mean Ellington and his band were greeted warmly. When they were allowed in nice restaurants, they were often asked to enter and exit through the back door and/or get their food to go. Touring abroad was not always better, with Ellington and his bandmates struggling to find hotels that would serve them while performing in the UK. Whether at home or abroad, Ellington often subsidized the band’s earnings with his own money in order to get through a tour. (2)
Ellington continued to tour throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and his compositions as well as his ability to bring out the best in each of the musicians in his orchestra made him a worldwide star. During this time, he transitioned from composing songs to composing suites, with themes and messages woven throughout. While other bands were attempting to create a unified sound, Ellington was composing pieces that highlighted the individual talents and styles of his band members.
While his career was soaring, Duke Ellington used many of the tools at his disposal to fight for what he called “first-class citizenship” for Black Americans. In the 1930s, Duke worked with the NAACP to hold benefit concerts, the most famous being for the Scottsboro Boys (nine Black youths imprisoned after being falsely accused of rape in 1931). He had a variety show called “Jump for Joy” that challenged negative stereotypes of Black people by presenting Black excellence. Ellington also introduced a non-segregation clause into all of his contracts by 1961, stating that he would only perform before integrated audiences. (3)
Even before making these bold moves for racial justice, Ellington contributed to the cause greatly through his music. By demanding the serious attention and respect his music deserved, he created a space for Black musicians that had previously been reserved for white, elite musicians/composers. Duke Ellington defied the racist stereotypes of the mid 20th century by being himself - a talented, stylish, intelligent, confident, proud Black man. In his person and his compositions, Ellington was both excellent and groundbreaking. He was a presence, in the US and around the world, in his lifetime and forevermore.