Life of A Pioneer Born in Washington D.C. in 1899, he started piano lessons when he was a boy, by the age of seventeen, he played professionally. In 1923, he moved to New York City where he played in small nightclubs, theaters, and on the radio, later played at one of the most popular nightclubs of the time in Harlem, The Cotton Club. Lead his orchestra for more than fifty years. Duke Ellington unarguably, was one of the greatest jazz composers that had ever lived.
Born in Washington D.C. on April 29, 1899, Edward Kennedy Ellingtons (net #6) childhood was unusually happy and carefree for an African American child growing up in the early 1900s (Frankl, 17). Ellington, at first, really wanted to play baseball, but a close encounter with a ball scared his mother which lead to his piano lessons. His mother simply said that it was safer (Frankl, 25). Piano lessons didnt last, Ellington didnt like to be taught things. Later in his youth, he would take up the art again, only this time he stuck to it.
Ellington said he realized that “When you were playing piano there was always a pretty girl standing down at the bass clef end of the piano (net #3).” “Duke” came from one of his friends who called him that because of his elegance and charm, the name stayed with him for the rest of his life (net #3). Ellingtons professional music career began when he was seventeen. He went to the pool halls in the D.C. area and played piano there. Ellington didnt play at the pool halls for the money, he played there because of the other musicians. Ellington constantly wanted to improve his own music, so he would listen to the musicians and learn their notes and lines.
At times, the musicians would let Ellington stand behind them and he would watch as they glided their fingers on the keyboard. Ellington learned a great deal from the musicians. Soon, Ellington was growing tired of pool hall fame and sought better recognition. He and two of his friends formed a band named the Washingtonians. (net #8). It wasnt long before Ellingtons band became well known in the city, every nightclub knew their name and wanted them. Ellington and the band played night after night. Once again, Ellington was searching for a higher mountain to climb. He had just heard from a friendly nightclub manager that there was a big music scene in the big apple, New York City, so the band packed their bags and headed North.
There at New York, Ellington had to make a new establishment, New York didnt know who he was yet. Soon, the band got a job playing at a nightclub in Harlem called the Kentucky Club. The place wasnt the best but the variety of customers that it hosted was able to spread their name, Washingtonians, all over New York. Ellingtons big break came in 1927 when he landed the job of playing at the most prestigious club in the city, the executive Cotton Club (net #4). At the Cotton Club, Ellington was able to gain national fame with the help from a new invention, the radio. With the advent of the radio, the entire country was able to listen to the Washingtonians play. Fame wasnt the only thing Ellington gained, with the financial success and support, Ellington was able to hire additional musicians and to pursue his ultimate dream as a master composer. Ellingtons first compositions were considered to be very stiff and jerky. In 1924, Ellingtons first recordings were made, these seemed to be the recordings of a jazz musician who was headed in the wrong direction and some even did not consider him to be a jazz musician at all, but they were an inauspicious beginning for some major talent. Ellingtons music began to show the depth and sophistication he was famous for.
His ideas of harmony, melody, orchestral color, and form came from the music around him. Ellington would listen to the music of the time and end up turning them into his own jazz style. When he first started writing music, he would devise a melody on the piano and from there assign a line to a different instrument in his orchestra. Over the years, he learned how to write for what some people consider to be his greatest instrument, the orchestra (net #8). This was accomplished when he realized that he had to take everything he had ever learned from people, such s Miley, Redman, and Henderson, even himself and start over with a new approach to Big Band Jazz.
His approach to the Big Band Jazz was a new one, even though the idea was not. In the past, people had tried and failed when they would take an existing orchestra and add a few jazz soloists. Ellington, on the other hand, took a small show band or pit band and turned each person in it into a jazz artist. Ellington learned to think directly as a jazz orchestrater, he was now looking at scores as a whole and not writing just for one instrument. Ellington had made his primary instrument, the orchestra (net #8).
He became a pioneer of jazz music. This, now, was a complete new challenge for what he was doing. There ware no presidents to follow and no models to compare. In his orchestra, he focused on the strength of each of his players and utilized them in his compositions. In 1937, Ellington wrote two pieces of work that complimented each other better than any others in the history of jazz.
He named these two pieces, the Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue. These two songs are considered to be two of Ellingtons most ambitious efforts, and when he first wrote them, they were beyond the capabilities of his band. It took until 1957 for the full potential of the songs to be realized. Starting with Diminuendo in Blue, it was a song that was based on Blues but used extended choruses with subdivisions and modulations. The modulations were very abrupt and hard for the players and audiences to handle. Its predecessor, Crescendo, was the complete opposite. The beginning of the song starts quietly and gradually builds to the climax along with exploits of the full texture and resources of the orchestra.
Crescendo also differs from Diminuendo because it had no modulations. These two songs were considered to be important stepping stones for another famous song, Ko-Ko. Ko-Ko was written in the crescendo form where each chorus builds on the one before it. The effect achieved by this was irresistible by the audience. Some of Ellingtons other most famous pieces are, Mood Indigo written in 1931, Sophisticated Lady 1933, and Solitude 1934. Some of his larger scale works consist of Black, Brown, and Beige written in 1943, A Concert of Sacred Music 1965, and Far East Suite 1967. Ellington has also contributed to movies such as Anatomy of a Murder and Paris Blues, along with the musical comedies Beggars Opera and Pousse-Caf. Ellingtons most famous song is considered to be Take the A Train.
In 1974, tragedy came upon the jazz world. Duke Ellington passed away. He performed for more than half of a century since the age of eighteen. At the end of his life, he said:”Music is my mistress” (net #3). Duke Ellington received numerous honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (net #6), the Presidents Gold Medal (net #11) and fifteen other honorary degrees (net #3). He was on the cover of Time in 1956 (net #4).
Performed for Queen Elizabeth in 1958 (net #7). Without question, Ellingtons place in Jazz is definitive. He remained an active musician for more than fifty years (net #5). In his lifetime, he wrote more than one thousand compositions (net #9) and performed hundreds of concerts including numerous charity events.