Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington

Duke Ellington 1899-1974
Pianist, Composer, Orchestra Leader
Born in Washington, D.C.

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, a native of Washington, DC, was an important pioneer in big-band jazz. Ellington was nicknamed "Duke" by a classmate who admired his clothing and manners. His parents both played the piano, and Duke started taking lessons at the age of seven; but he preferred playing baseball and quit. He didn't become interested in the piano again until he was a teenager. He played the piano in a musical style known as ragtime and joked that he learned to play to attract girls. Duke began his career performing at his high-school dances.

Shortly afterward, Duke made his first career as a jazz pianist at the Cotton Club in Harlem. His band expanded to 18 members. Duke Ellington and His Orchestra played all over the U.S. and in 65 countries; the band even went to Hollywood to make movies. With his piece "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" (1932), Ellington anticipated the swing dancing obsession in the United States.

Ellington composed over 2000 works, including musical comedies, music for ballet and motion pictures, an opera, and many short songs and instrumentals. He is considered one of the best musicians of the 20th century. Ellington received 11 Grammy Awards and 19 honorary doctorate degrees. In 1969, during his 70th birthday party at the White House, President Nixon awarded Duke Ellington the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He conducted the orchestra up until his death in 1974.


Related Resources

Selected Works
Music Is My Mistress by Duke Ellington
The World of Duke Ellington by Stanley Dance
Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington by John Edward Hasse and Wynton Marsalis
Duke Ellington in Person by Mercer Ellington (his son), with Stanley Dance


Black History Month  Return to the Encyclopedia
of Prominent African Americans

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