Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington 

The greatest jazz composer of all time was Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. He wrote over a thousand compositions in a 50 year-long career, many of which became jazz standards. The intricacy and style he brought to the swing era was unsurpassed. Born in Washington DC April 29, 1899, Duke gained national fame in the Cotton Club in Harlem, leading his orchestra there and later throughout the world from 1955 onwards. He first took piano lessons from the magnificently named Marietta Clinkscales and was noted for his dandy dress and gentle manners, which earned him the nickname Duke. His youthful enthusiasm was first fired by listening to ragtime piano players in pool halls. He turned away from his art studies and started to earn his living painting signs and picking up music jobs from the announcement of a dance or party which he was signwriting.

Duke built a successful business for his band but he left that behind in DC to move to Harlem which was the hot place to play. His first attempt to compete there failed but he managed to break in through a performance in Atlantic City which led to the Exclusive Club in Harlem, The Hollywood on 49th and then, in 1927, to the Cotton Club with its wealthy white audience and later, its regular national radio show, which added greatly to his record sales and exposure.

Bubber Miley with his growling trumpet, introduced a hot jungle style to the sweet dance sound of the band and Duke later worked on “Show Girl,” a Ziegfeld Broadway production with Will Vodery directing music by Gershwin. Here, more technical depth came into his own music. He went to Hollywood to make some films, at a time when the industry was looking for quality music to fill the talkies and big names in popular music to help sell them.

Through his training, which Duke lacked, Billy “Swee Pea” Strayhorn lent a more classical side to the the music from 1941, extending the pieces beyond the three minute recording size of a record and into bigger works treating on the African American experience, which were largely unsuccessful. Strayhornʼs work and influence on the success of Duke and the band was enormous in the following years, writing their theme tune, Take the A Train and many others in close collaboration with Duke.

Exceptionally, Duke continued to tour his Big Band through post-war austerity into the 1950s when most of the others had downsized to combos or retired. The Newport Jazz Festival in July 1956 saw a revival in interest in his sound and the recording of that concert was one of the great success stories of his career. Strayhorn returned to work with him and the revival was under way. His work was recorded by Ella Fitzgerald firmly placing it in her Great American Songbook series. In later years he collaborated with many of his former rivals and the greatest musicians of the modern era, returning to Hollywood to score and perform the music to some great films.

Swing It donʼt mean a thing Duke Ellington