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Centennial Tribute to Duke Ellington


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Photos: © Howard University. The Founders Library, Channing Pollock Theatre Collection.


During 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 tone color.

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.

Ellington's piano 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, and dancers.

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
Jazz Facts from the New York Times
Spotlight Biography: Jazz & Blues


Duke Ellington: An American Treasure

The Ellington Archives

The Archives Center Finding Aids

Rude Interlude


Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (1899 - 1974)

It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing

An Appreciation of Duke Ellington

The World Citizen

Photo Archive

Mercer Ellington, Bandleader, Son of Duke

A Daughter-in-law's Tribute

The Edward Kennedy Ellington Pages


Duke Ellington: Master Composer

Ellington-Strayhorn Songbook

Duke Ellington and His Kentucky Club Orchestra

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra - (Photo)

History of Jazz

Duke Ellington - The Story

The Essence of Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington: Blues in Orbit

The Duke Ellington Panorama 


Rude Interlude - a Duke Ellington Home Page

Links to Other Duke Ellington Pages

Duke Ellington Pages

People in Jazz


G.Schirmer's Selected Discography

The Best of the Sacred Concerts

The Edward Kennedy Ellington Pages

Red Hot Bands, 1895-1929

Duke Ellington and His Cotton Club Orchestra

Duke Ellington and His Kentucky Club Orchestra

Duke Ellington/Joe Turner and His Memphis Men

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

Duke Ellington - Blue Feeling

The Ellington-Strayhorn Songbook


The Duke Ellington Society [TDES] (NY)

The Duke Ellington Society (UK)

The Western High School - Duke Ellington School of the Arts Alumni Association

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.
Compiled by Arthuree McLaughlin Wright with assistance of Steven IlSang Yoon.

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