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Biographical Sketch | Artifacts, Memorabilia, Manuscripts | Biographical
Overviews: The Man and His Family
The Musician and the Music
| Links to Other Pages | Discographies,
Friends, Fans and School Associations
| Books and Articles: Biographical
and Critical Works
© Howard University. The Founders Library, Channing
Pollock Theatre Collection.
his lifetime, Duke Ellington was widely regarded
as an ambassador of American music and culture.
This unique status was attributed to his combined
talents of orchestration and band leading, coupled
with his charismatic personality and magnanimous
presence. Undeniably one of the most important
composers in the history of jazz, with an estimated
two thousand compositions, arrangements, and
collaborations to his credit, Ellington's career
greatly influenced the rise of the jazz band.
Born Edward Kennedy
Ellington on April 29, 1899, in Washington,
DC, Duke began piano lessons at age six. He
wrote his first composition, "Soda Fountain
Rag," at age fourteen, while working as
a soda jerk. He began playing professionally
at seventeen. His parents expected him
to accept a fine arts scholarship at Pratt to
study painting, but he chose instead to devote
himself to jazz. In 1919 he and a few
friends formed a small band, Duke's Serenaders,
which expanded and moved to New York City in
1923 as The Washingtonians. A year later, when
Ellington took charge of the quintet, his career
as a bandleader was firmly established. As jazz
bands grew in size, Ellington had the opportunity
to move from the spontaneous improvisation of
a simple theme to more creative orchestration
with unique combinations of tone quality. With
more musicians to coordinate, Ellington paid
careful attention to structure and balance in
his jazz arrangements, while still allowing
for solo improvisations. Unlike his contemporaries,
Ellington drew instruments from different sections
of the band and voiced them together as a unit,
generating fresh musical sounds. He also
employed wordless female vocalists as another
As an inspired
coach and kind-hearted leader, Ellington willingly
showcased his musicians and enabled them, in
turn, to make a strong impact on jazz styles
for their particular instruments. This
is borne out by Hodges' approach to alto saxophone
ballad interpretation, Blanton's method of horn
like solo lines played pizzicato on bass, and
Ben Webster's tenor saxophone approach.
style influenced Thelonious Monk, a leading
modern jazz composer-pianist, while Ellington's
arranging concepts were assimilated by Gil Evans,
Thad Jones, George Russell, Clare Fischer, Charles
Mingus, Sun Ra, and other significant modern
composers. Although Ellington's forte was jazz
and his big-band pieces were best known, he
also wrote for the Broadway stage, ballets,
operas, films and church services. The latter
works were scored for symphony orchestra, choruses,
In his 1973 autobiography,
Music Is My Mistress, Ellington said,
"My men and my race are the inspiration
of my work. I try to catch the character and
mood and feeling of my people." Even
though he wrote out of the African American
experience, Ellington's music was received around
the world as the proliferation of jazz groups
and societies such as Japan's Far East Ellington
Lovers (FEEL) Jazz Orchestra
attest. Taken as a whole, Ellington's musical
contribution was "beyond category"
since he "converted the actual texture
of American life into first-rate, universally
appealing music," as literary scholar Albert
Murray observed. Edward Kennedy Ellington died
in New York City on May 24, 1974. Several
of the biographical and critical works
published since his death are listed in the
bibliography at the end of this web page. Budding
scholars who want to assess his works for themselves
are encouraged to visit the Smithsonian Institution which houses the Duke
Ellington Collection of manuscripts and memorabilia.
Ellington, Duke. "The Composer on His Work" Christian Science Monitor, 10 June 1968; reprint, 25 November 1998, Anniversary supplement, p13.
"Ellington, Duke" Encyclopędia Britannica Online 9 March 1999 http://www.eb.com:180/bol/topic?eu=33004&sctn=1
Jazz Facts from the New York Times http://www.j51.com/~jayl/jazz/jazzfacts.html
Spotlight Biography: Jazz & Blues http://educate.si.edu/spotlight/blues.html
ARTIFACTS, MEMORABILIA, MANUSCRIPTS
BIOGRAPHICAL OVERVIEWS: THE MAN AND HIS FAMILY
THE MUSICIAN AND THE MUSIC
LINKS TO OTHER WEBSITES
FRIENDS, FANS AND SCHOOL ASSOCIATIONS
BOOKS AND ARTICLES: BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL WORKS
- Anderson, Paul A. "Ellington, Rap Music, and Cultural Differenc." The Musical Quarterly 79 (Spring 1995): 172-206.
- Clark, Robert S. "Music Chronicle." The Hudson Review 42 (Spring 1989): 101-107.
- Collier, James Lincoln. Duke Ellington. New York: Oxford University, 1987.
- Dance, Stanley. The World of Duke Ellington. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1970.
- Ellington, Mercer and Stanley Dance. Duke Ellington in Person: an Intimate Memoir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978.
- Hasse, John Edward. Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
- Hudson, Theodore R. "Duke Ellington's Literary Sources." American Music 9 (Spring 1991): 20-42.
- Jewell, Derek. Duke: A Portrait of Duke Ellington. New York: Norton, 1977, reissued 1986.
- Marsalis, Wynton. "Ellington At 100: Reveling in Life's Majesty." New York Times 17 January 1999, section 2, p.1.
- Metzer, David. "Shadow Play: the Spiritual in Duke Ellington's 'Black and Tan Fantasy.'" Black Music Research Journal 17 (Fall 1997): 137-58.
- Murray, Albert." The Vernacular Imperative: Duke Ellington's Place in the National Pantheon." Boundary 2 22 (Summer 1995):19-24.
- Rattenbury, Ken. Duke Ellington, Jazz Composer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
- Teachout, Terry. "(Over)praising Duke Ellington." Commentary 102 (Spring 1996): 74-77.
- Tucker, Mark, ed. The Duke Ellington Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
- ___________. Ellington: The Early Years. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
- Watrous, Peter and Mark Tucker. "Ellington Emerges, Falters and Triumphs." New York Times 17 January 1999, section 2, p.32.
McLaughlin Wright with assistance of Steven