[STAY WOKE] Duke Ellington Innovator of Big Band Jazz

Duke Ellington a Composer with pizzazz who pioneered Big Band Jazz

One thing about Jazz Music is it has always been associated with African American Culture. The history of Jazz dates back to the late 19th century in New Orleans and is said to stem from Blues and Ragtime. Dating even further back, Jazz has roots outside of America in West African culture.

Duke EllingtonWhen it comes to Jazz we must discuss Duke Ellington, one of its greatest contributors writing more than one thousand compositions. Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born in Washington D.C. in April of 1899 with two pianists as parents. Being formally introduced to the piano at age seven he began taking private lessons. He developed grace and pizzazz as a child with his mother reinforcing his manners by surrounding him with dignified women. This display of charisma is what earned him the name Duke. He actually credits his friend Edgar McEntree for the nickname. Despite his natural musical talent and elegance, he was more interested in playing baseball.

Duke’s first job was selling peanuts at the Washington Senators baseball games and this is where passions would collide. He wrote his first composition in 1914 while working as a soda clerk. Even though he had been taking lessons since age seven he still couldn’t read or write music. Therefore, he composed the piece by ear calling it “Soda Fountain Rag”. He skipped many lessons in his early years as music was not his true aspiration.

Sneaking into Frank Holiday’s Poolroom as a teenager and being enchanted by the pianists there redirected his passion. Shortly after this, he began to take his studies more seriously and eventually learned to read sheet music. Upon polishing his craft he began performing in cafes and clubs in the Washington, D.C. area.

During this time Duke’s passion for music had grown so strong that he dropped out of high school three months before graduation. He even turned down a scholarship offer. While working as a freelance sign-painter in 1917 he began gathering groups of musicians to play for dances. Eventually, he learned to use his day job to book more gigs for himself. Through properly applied effort he was able to move out of his parents’ home around age 18 and buy himself a house.

Forge a path with passionate fire

By this time he had already formed his own group where he served as their booking agent setting up paid gigs. They had a versatile and lucrative experience playing for both White and Black audiences. This was very rare in the era of segregation. They toured around the DMV doing private society balls and embassy parties.

Duke Ellington

He went on to sew his roots in the very competitive Harlem music scene. After a period of struggling to make ends meet Duke and his team of musicians reluctantly went back to D.C. However, their luck would soon change in June of 1923. Ellington booked a gig in Atlantic City, New Jersey which led to a play date at the Exclusive Club in Harlem. Soon after in September 1923, he had the honor of playing at the Hollywood Club at 49th and Broadway. The club became Kentucky Club two years later after a fire. Duke Ellington and his Kentucky Club Orchestra continued to play as the primary act until 1927.

That same year Ellington and his band were booked at Harlem’s exclusive Cotton Club. There was a weekly radio broadcast there giving him national exposure. This was in addition to white and wealthy audiences coming nightly to witness them perform. As these strides were taking place, Ellington continued to gain national recognition, compose original pieces, and add members to his band. He went on to appear in a few films while being the Cotton Club’s feature bandleader, which ended in 1931. A few years later the Duke Ellington orchestra performed in England, Scotland, and the European mainland. In spite of having a primarily African American fan-base in the U.S., they earned a prominent following overseas.

Build a legacy to last beyond a lifetime

Because of Duke’s international success and recognition, navigating the segregated south to perform became much more sustainable. Over time with changes in political and musical climates, his career hit a few bumps in the road in the 1950s. Thus far in his career, he had worked on musicals, toured Europe again, had an extensive catalog of compositions, and even attempted to take an original production to Broadway. He then began to add film compositions to his repertoire.

In the ’60s Duke traveled the globe touring with his orchestra while forming international relationships with other artists in the process. He was in his 60’s doing all of this. Overall Ellington had a career that was alive and well for over 50 years. He passed away at age 75 in 1974. This was shortly after giving a full concert performance in a ballroom at Northern Illinois University.

Throughout his lifetime and career, he accomplished many things and inspired many people. He was also inspired by the talented individuals he met throughout his journey. Duke’s legacy boasts profusely with honors, inductions, and awards including 14 Grammy’s and an Honorary Doctor of Music Degree from Yale. Duke Ellington is recognized as a composer, pianist, and leader of a jazz orchestra. The best part about it all is he did it with finesse. It’s extremely prodigious for a Black man to accomplish such things in the early 19th century and beyond. That’s why it’s imperative to honor those who blazed the trail and by keeping their epic stories alive. After all, if it wasn’t Duke and other music pioneers like him where would we be?

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