Duke Ellington – Born On this Day, 1899

American composer, musician, and big band leader Edward “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) was born in Lincolnton, North Carolina, on the 29th of April, 1899. He was a pianist, who was considered one of the greatest jazz composers and bandleaders of his time. Ellington worked with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, and many more.

One of the pioneers of big-band jazz, Ellington led his band for almost 50 years, wrote thousands of songs.

Ellington was raised in a stable middle-class family in Washington, D.C. His family supported his passion for the fine arts, and he began studying piano at the age of seven. During his high school years, he got interested in studying art and was offered a scholarship at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, but he did not accept it. He started performing professionally at the age of 17, after being inspired by ragtime musicians.

Ellington first performed in New York City in 1923. Later that year, he moved there and led a sextet in Broadway bars, which eventually grew to a 10-piece group. Ellington’s early “jungle style,” as seen in masterpieces such as “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” (1926) and “Black and Tan Fantasy” (1927), was influenced by the unique blues-based melodies, the harsh, vocalised sounds of his trumpeter, Bubber Miley, and the sonorities of the distinctive trombonist Joe (“Tricky Sam”) Nanton.

Extended residencies at the Cotton Club in Harlem (1927-32, 1937-38) inspired Ellington to expand his band to 14 members and deepen his compositional horizons. He selected his musicians for their expressive individuality. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, several members of his band – including trumpeter Cootie Williams (who replaced Miley), cornetist Rex Stewart, trombonist Lawrence Brown, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, and clarinettist Barney Bigard – were themselves important jazz artists. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Ellington made hundreds of recordings with these extraordinary musicians, who stayed with him throughout the 1930s, performed in films and radio, and toured Europe in 1933 and 1939.

This ensemble’s expertise helped Ellington to step away from band-section scoring standards. Instead, he developed new harmonies to integrate his performers’ distinct tones. He used inventive instrument combinations to emphasise delicate moods; one of the most recognised instances is “Mood Indigo”. In 1931, Ellington began writing complex compositions such as Creole Rhapsody, Reminiscing in Tempo, and Diminuendo in Blue/Crescendo in Blue. He created a series of pieces to highlight the unique skills of his soloists.

A high point in Ellington’s career came in the early 1940s, when he composed a few masterworks – including “Concerto for Cootie,” his fast-tempo show-pieces  “Cotton Tail” and “Ko-Ko,” and the uniquely structured “Main Stem” and “Harlem Discuss Shaft”- in which progressions of soloists are accompanied by assorted ensemble colors.

Not constraining himself to jazz innovation, Ellington composed well-known melodies: “Sophisticated Lady,” “Rocks in My Bed,” and “Satin Doll”, “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Solitude,” and many more. A number of these hits were presented by Ivy Anderson, who was the band’s female vocalist in the 1930s.

Ellington became interested in the possibilities of composing jazz within classical forms.

His musical suite Black, Brown and Beige (1943), a portrayal of African-American history, was the first in a series of suites he composed. “It was followed by, among others, Liberian Suite (1947); A Drum Is a Woman (1956), created for a television production; Such Sweet Thunder (1957), impressions of William Shakespeare’s scenes and characters; a recomposed, reorchestrated version of Nutcracker Suite (1960; after Peter Tchaikovsky); Far East Suite (1964); and Togo Brava Suite (1971). Ellington’s symphonic A Rhapsody of Negro Life was the basis for the film short Symphony in Black (1935). Ellington wrote motion-picture scores for The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and composed for the ballet and theatre – including, at the height of the American civil rights movement, the show My People (1964), a celebration of African American life. Duke Ellington composed three pieces of sacred music: In the Beginning God (1965), Second Sacred Concert (1968), and Third Sacred Concert, 1973.

In spite of the fact that Ellington’s compositional interface and desire changed over the decades, his melodic, consonant, and musical characteristics were for the most part settled by the late 1930s, when he was a star of the swing era. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Ellington adapted his style for orchestral purposes, accompanying with vivid harmonic colors and, especially in later years, offering swinging solos with angular melodies. “An elegant man, Ellington maintained a regal manner as he led the band and charmed audiences with his suave humor. His career spanned more than half a century – most of the documented history of jazz.”

Ellington’s sense of musical dramatization and his wide range of temperaments were uncommon when it came to the history of jazz.

Duke Ellington, Getty Images

Ellington’s autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, was published in 1973.