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In actual fact, Duke Ellington was put into the jazz world to separate the men from the boys. His grasp of harmony and instrumental voicing is more advanced than anybody else's in the entire range of jazz, and the reason why so many modern fans are unable to accept him is not that they are too modern for Duke, but that Duke is too modern for them.
—Benny Green, quoted in the liner notes of Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, 1963
Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974) was a jazz pianist and band leader, one of the big names in the history of the genre, and one of the USA's greatest popular composers.
He hailed from a middle-class family in Washington, DC, and learned piano both from lessons and from imitating the ragtime pianists in the community. After attaining modest success in DC as a pianist and jazz band leader, Duke sought the big time by taking his band to New York City, the center of the music world and the most glamorous scene of The Roaring Twenties. He first played in the Kentucky Club, then the Cotton Club, honing his songwriting chops and gathering more musicians around him until he was no longer leading a band but an orchestra. During the 1930s and 1940s, as big-band swing grew in popularity throughout the US and the world, Duke's jazz orchestra became renowned as one of the best.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, big bands and swing precipitously fell out of popularity. Duke's orchestra was one of the few that managed to stay afloat--and even so, the band mainly survived off the royalties from their prior compositions.
However, soon enough time had passed for the Popularity Polynomial to swing back in Duke's favor, setting the stage for a comeback. At the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, the band's performance of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue"--particularly Paul Gonsalves' 27-chorus saxophone solo in the middle--stirred the crowd to wild dancing, then pandemonium. A month later, Duke's face was on the cover of Time magazine. Duke and his orchestra were even more renowned than they were at the height of the swing era, and this resurgence in popularity lasted until Duke's death in 1974.
During this period, Duke continued to innovate, albeit within the swing idiom, writing new material and rearranging old material to keep it fresh. He incorporated "world music" influences on albums like The Far East Suite and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, and incorporated church music into his Sacred Concert series. At the encouragement of producer Bob Thiele and various labels, Duke teamed up with other big names in jazz--Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach--to record albums.
Throughout his career, Duke sought out what he called "individualists"--musicians who weren't just technically proficient with their instrument, but whose playing was one-of-a-kind. (In this regard, he was inspired by the examples of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet--Duke once expressed a desire to have Louis play every instrument for his band, if it were possible.) A few of the individualists who played with Duke were trumpeters James "Bubber" Miley, Cootie Williams, and Ray Nance (who also played violin); trombonists "Tricky Sam" Nanton and Juan Tizol; saxophonists Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, and Paul Gonsalves; bassist Jimmy Blanton; and vocalist Ivie Anderson. Billy Strayhorn was also particularly noteworthy for his serving as the band's secondary pianist and Ellington's partner in songwriting. Ellington and Strayhorn had a knack for writing or arranging songs tailored specifically for the strengths of the musicians--it was noted that musicians tended to play better under Duke than on their own. Duke also treated his musicians well, and as a result, the musician turnover rate in his orchestra was remarkably low.
Duke and Strayhorn also composed and performed music for theater and film. The most famous of these soundtracks, Anatomy of a Murder, was notable for being a historic breakthrough--the first African-American compositions used as non-diagetic music in a major Hollywood film.
When asked during his return to fame what was good music, he replied: “If it sounds good and feels good, then it IS good!” which became known as Duke Ellington's Law.
Notable songs associated with the band
By Duke Ellington
- Black and Tan Fantasy
- C Jam Blues
- Concerto for Cootie
- I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)
- It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)
- Jack the Bear
- Mood Indigo
- Sepia Panorama
By Billy Strayhorn
- Chelsea Bridge
- Take the "A" Train
By Juan Tizol
Notable albums and compilations
- Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band (recorded 1939-1942, released 2003). Collects all of Duke's singles from the period that some scholars consider the band's golden age.
- Duke Ellington at Fargo, 1940 Live (released 1978 with some songs omitted; the complete recording released 1990).
- The Carnegie Hall Concerts: January 1943 (released 1977)
- Ellington at Newport (Complete) (recorded 1956, released 1999).
- Together for the First Time and The Great Reunion (both 1961). Duke's only studio session with Louis Armstrong. Compiled as a single CD The Great Summit: The Master Takes (2001).
- First Time! The Count Meets the Duke (1961) Recorded with Count Basie and his orchestra.
- Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (recorded 1962, released 1963)
- Money Jungle (recorded 1962, released 1963). Recorded with Charles Mingus and Max Roach.
- Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (recorded 1962, released 1963).
- The Far East Suite (recorded 1966, released 1967).
- New Orleans Suite (1970).
Provides examples of:
- The Cameo: Scored Anatomy of a Murder, and also appeared as juke joint pianist Pie-Eye.
- Epic Rocking: Even in the swing era, when the 78 rpm record format put a hard limit on the length of studio recordings, Duke would sometimes record songs that took up both sides of a record. Then the long-playing record was invented, permitting even longer compositions. The result: Duke's very first studio LP (Masterpieces by Ellington, 1950), consisting of four songs varying from 8 to 15 minutes long.
- Dolled-Up Installment: "Isfahan" from The Far East Suite. All the other FES compositions were inspired by a visit to the Middle East, but "Isfahan" was reworked from a piece Duke and Strayhorn had already written, called "Elf".
- Magnum Opus Dissonance: Duke considered his Sacred Concerts to be the most important thing he ever wrote. Listeners aren't sure.
- Signature Song: Initially "Sepia Panorama." Shortly afterwards, it (and every other ASCAP-licensed song) was banned from radio play, so "Take the 'A' Train" was written to become the Ellington band's new theme.
- Train Song: "Take the 'A' Train."