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Duke Ellington Biography – The American Jazz Composer who Enthralled Millions

American pianist Duke Ellington was one of the founders of big-band jazz. He was also a composer of classical, gospel and popular music as well as film scores and the blues. Ellington received twelve Grammy awards, three posthumously. Nine of his recordings are in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Duke Ellington BiographyPHOTO BY PUBLIC DOMAIN

Duke Ellington Biography - Life and Early Works

Born to pianist parents on April 29, 1899, Edward Kennedy Ellington grew up surrounded by music and art. He took piano lessons at the age of seven, while living in Washington, D.C., and began to make professional performances when he was 17. Ragtime music is an important part of the Duke Ellington biography, because this was his strongest influence as a pianist. In 1918, he married Edna Thompson, his high school sweetheart, and moved to New York City in 1923. He performed in nightclubs on Broadway until he became part of a ten-piece set, making melodies that influenced his trademark “jungle style.” Ellington’s fourteen-musician band, which included saxophonist Harry Carney and trumpeter Cootie Williams, is a significant highlight of the Duke Ellington biography. A month after he turned 75, Ellington succumbed to pneumonia and lung cancer on May 24, 1974.

Duke Ellington Songs - Some Masterpieces

Ellington’s first composition was the Soda Fountain Rag in 1914. He created it by ear, being unable to read and write music at the time. Despite racial segregation, Duke Ellington songs became famous not only among African Americans but also among whites. He deviated from conventional band-section scoring in his combination of new harmonies to enhance the individual sounds of his musicians. This is evident in such pieces as Creole Rhapsody, Diminuendo in Blue and Reminiscing in Tempo. Ellington frequently collaborated with Billy Strayhorn, a composer, arranger and fellow pianist. In the 1940s he created some of his masterpieces including the fast-tempo Cotton Tail and the panorama Harlem Air Shaft. Duke Ellington songs in mainstream music include Sophisticated Lady, Prelude to a Kiss and I Let a Song Go out of My Heart. Some of his contributions to film are the extended piece A Rhapsody of Negro Life, which made Billie Holiday famous, and the musical score for Jump For Joy.

Duke Ellington School of the Arts

The Duke Ellington School of the Arts was born in 1974 simple classes led by the founders of Workshops for Careers in the Arts. The public high school, located in Ellington’s hometown of Washington, D.C., specializes in dance, instrumental and vocal music, theater, visual arts, literary media and museum studies. Ellington helped fund the school through the Ellington Fund, a private, nonprofit group. The Duke Ellington School of the Arts Project was established in September 2000, to include more public and private partners including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, George Washington University and the District of Columbia Public Schools.

Written by Katherine Murphy

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