Today we will visit with musical genius Edward Kennedy Ellington, more famously known as Duke Ellington. The Duke wrote almost 2,000 musical compositions during his long and distinguished career and achieved national prominence along with his orchestra.
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was the most prolific composer of the twentieth century in terms of both number of compositions and variety of forms. His development was one of the most spectacular in the history of music, underscored by more than fifty years of sustained achievement as an artist and an entertainer. He is considered by many to be America’s greatest composer, bandleader, and recording artist.
The extent of Ellington’s innovations helped to redefine the various forms in which he worked. He synthesized many of the elements of American music — the minstrel song, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley tunes, the blues, and American appropriations of the European music tradition — into a consistent style with which, though technically complex, has a directness and a simplicity of expression largely absent from the purported art music of the twentieth century. Ellington’s first great achievements came in the three-minute song form, and he later wrote music for all kinds of settings: the ballroom, the comedy stage, the nightclub, the movie house, the theater, the concert hall, and the cathedral. His blues writing resulted in new conceptions of form, harmony, and melody, and he became the master of the romantic ballad and created numerous works that featured the great soloists in his jazz orchestra.
This elegant representative of American culture was born in Washington, DC, on April 29, 1899. Ellington studied piano from age seven and was influenced by stride piano masters such as James P. Johnson, Willie “the Lion” Smith, and Fats Waller. By 1923, he had moved to New York City and had his own band, the Washingtonians. He later formed the Duke Ellington Orchestra, which by 1930 had grown to include 12 musicians and achieved national prominence through radio broadcasts, recordings, and film appearances.
By the early 1940s, Ellington experimented with extended composition and his orchestra toured the US and Europe extensively. In 1943, Ellington inaugurated a series of annual concerts at Carnegie Hall with the premiere of Black, Brown, and Beige. He continued to expand the scope of his compositions and activities as a bandleader throughout his life. His foreign tours became increasingly frequent and successful; his travel experiences served as the inspiration for his many works about people, places and trains. He wrote nearly two thousand compositions before his death in 1974.