DUKE ELLINGTON aka Edward Kennedy Ellington. Born unto Daisy Kelly Ellington and James Edward Ellington on April 29 1899 in Washington DC. Stevie Wonder named Him "Sir Duke" and was inspired to write that incredible song called "Sir Duke".  There are differing opinions on how He originally acquired the title "Duke".  [1}  Because of his exceptionally good manners and [2] because of his rather dapper appearance when He worked as a soda jerk at Washington's "Poodle Dog Cafe". By the age of sixteen He had composed "Soda Fountain Rag" and that was the beginning of a sixty two year career. When I decided to write a tribute to the Duke I realised that I had chosen the word "Tribute" - not " Article ". I also realised that I was dealing with a Man of Immense Musical Stature and absolute Integrity as a Human Being. There, in the latter, lies Duke Ellington's great strength. The more research I did the more I realised that I really knew nothing about Him or very, very little.  When I write I attempt to reveal, where possible, the inner qualities of my chosen subject. I believe that in this day and age there are human qualities which must never be allowed to die e.g  : Compassion, Love, Humility, Faith, Inner Strength - the finer things in life, and when I find someone who reflects these qualities I consider it my God given duty to reveal them to my reader. Duke Ellington's life and what He achieved is 100% proof, pure inspiration for anyone who's feeling down or faltering in the pursuit of their dreams. " I am not a teacher" said Duke.  Perhaps in the purely literal sense this is true, he never set out to directly teach anyone anything, yet we can all learn a helluva lot from his example. As a man and as a musician. I simply didn't know what I was getting into when I chose to write about Duke. Obviously I had to do some research to get close to my subject, but I was almost overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what has already been written about Him. When I asked for info on the web something like 200,000 web sites were thrown at me and I thought " What on Earth can I add to that, and what will it mean, if anything ?"  It will mean this : I can help point the way to the sources where any true Duke Ellington fan or Scholar can add something of worth to his/ her life, sources that can do it immeasurably better than I can. For one writer to come up with a "complete story" on Duke would be a lifetime's work in itself. Duke's music - the sheer quantity of it, is almost beyond belief. The quality ? Par Excellence.
Here is a Major Composer who not only communicates the pain and struggle, tolerance, and love of the Afro- American community in it's fight for for a better existence, but actually transcends it, raising the Human spirit to it's true position in life, that of Simple Humanity, beyond racial boundaries. Duke said " I don't like categories" and I guess that applies to his Music as well as his philosophy on Life. I've said it before and I'll say it again. Race, religion and politics - these are, in many cases, just distracting games we play while we lose sight of the one and only truth in Life -" Love One Another" - simply because we are all Human beings. Duke sold peanuts at ball games when He was a kid. Gave up on his early piano lessons, as many of us did, but the seed was in Him for music and would pick it's own moment to reveal itself to the world.
His early piano teacher had a most appropriate and very funny name :
Miss Clinkscales !  He actually abandoned music for a while and attended the "Armstrong Manual Training School" studying Commercial Art, but one can still see the Artist in that pursuit. The creative force will reveal itself in any number of ways . At the age of 14 He was frequenting Frank Holliday's poolroom, and those of You who have shot pool or snooker wiil know the great variety of characters one finds in those establishments.  So He had the opportunity of experiencing a sizeable cross section of mainly "Black" Society , finding out about the " Jive" in Life whilst still retaining the values instilled in him by his parents, like good table manners for instance,  and respect for others. It seems he first got "The Call" to return to music when He heard "Ragtime". Ah, that " Ragtime". It has turned so many Musicians on. When I hear it I get that great unexplainable Joy welling up inside Me. Ragtime was and will continue to be a pulse for much of the popular music to come. That Feel !. And when beautiful melodies were added to it a la Scott Joplin for instance, We had an Art Form that combined all the wonderful rhythmic grace, vitality and raw power of Mother Africa  with the Grace, Refinement, and Beauty of European Musical Form.
Scott Joplin                                                        
No wonder everyone went crazy. No wonder Duke was hooked by it. Watch Bo Jangles when He dances and you'll see that "Strut". It's a direct throwback to Ragtime and what came before. Ragtime had Soul , something that gets to the Heart of a person. If you hear a good Ragtime melody and You find yourself a- plink plonking it on piano, trying to find the tune, there's a very good chance you're going to become a musician. Music is a blessing and a beautiful thing. It's also an infection, like a virus. Once you get it bad enough You never recover. Miles likened it to being a two edged thing - a blessing and a curse at the same time, 'cause no matter what happens in any given day, that Mistress called Music demands that You give your attention to Her. If you ignore Her she may leave you. 
 Miles Davis
She took Young Duke Ellington to her Bosom and never let go of Him again, or He of Her. You know when a young musician is on his way when He starts looking for other musicians. Inevitably it means hearing musicians from all over, be it by live performance, on recordings, radio, whatever. So it was with Duke. "Show Me how to do that, what are you doing there ? What's that scale, that chord, how do I voice Brass, Woodwind ? " It's an exchange of information, it's communication etc and, equally inevitably, you leave your home town  seeking newer, greener pastures. And other musicians.  In the summertime Duke would leave Washington and vacation in Philadelphia or Atlantic City with his Mother, and there were a number of ragtime Pianists in both of these cities. One of his early influences was a hot piano player called Harvey Brooks who Duke met in Asbury Park. After one such vacation Duke spent some time in Philadelphia with Harvey and, combining  that gentleman's tutorial skills  with sheer hard work and study, the scene was set for Duke Ellington's brilliant career to unfold. Duke taught himself harmony  and made his professional debut at the age of 17. By 1917 He had formed his first group - "The Duke's Serenaders", had established his own Booking Agency { wise move} and so promoted his band personally and made a big impact in  Washington and Virginia playing for Society Balls and Embassy functions. As you can see Duke already showed He could take care of business. Fats Waller was a huge influence in His life and encouraged by Fats, Duke left the Security of Washington and moved to New York in 1923.  He was already well known in New York, as his Radio broadcasts had established Him there as a popular and respected artist.  He made his first recording that same year. He worked as a member of Elmer Snowdon's band - "The Washingtonians" and not long after, took over the band, which grew from a five piece to a twelve piece band by 1931.The band worked a number of clubs in NYC  including Ciros, Connie's Inn, The Plantation Club, The Exclusive Club  and the legendary " Cotton Club", so brilliantly portayed in the movie " Harlem Nights" with Eddie Murphy and Richard Prior. The music was defined as " Jungle Music". Jungle Music ineed ! Duke was turning the whole big band thing on its head. Here was a True Twentieth Century Composer. A Composer who would demonstrate that formal education and the ability to improvise could go hand and hand. That simplicity and complexity were just two sides of the same coin. Listen to Duke's c.d "Back To Back" with Harry " Sweets Eddison, Johnny Hodges and co. and just see how they put it together with such simplicity and ease. Through the great proliferation of radio receivers across the U.S.A, Duke's music was heard far and wide and his reputation and popularity began to grow at a meteoric rate.
The bands' live broadcasts on " From The Cotton Club" ensured that everyone knew the name of Duke Ellington. In 1928 Duke and Irving Mills signed a publishing agreement, and record labels like " Brunswick", "Victor" and "Columbia" vied for the honour of recording Duke's band and his music. The Band became the most popular and sought -after band in America and indeed throughout the World !  Duke was barely 30 years of age . Duke wasn't this kind of musician or that kind of musician although his name is obviously associated with Jazz in the main, and rightly so. He was just - MUSIC. The embodiment of it. The Soul of it. I rank Duke alongside all the great Composers in history as regards pure musical composition  eg Beethoven, Mozart, Puccini, Stravinski. Add to this the Supreme Elements of spontaneous improvisation and Soul and You have something /someone very special. Duke covered everything in the book from John Coltrane to Frank Sinatra. From the "Cotton Club" in Harlem to International Tours, Film scores, Sacred Music -  in fact the whole spectrum of music and the music business. And He was Black. Let us never forget that. This gentleman was instrumental in changing the attitude of what was predominantly a white oriented society which still practiced racial discrimination. It is amazing how Music has helped to cleanse the souls of a society in so many instances. I can only think that it's a power from God. White society's acceptance of black people, albeit in the musical / artistic fields, is an indication that it too was changing. A song can change a man's heart and mind better than a bullet. The Soul will be heard. You don't have to be any particular colour to bleed . It's an established fact that Billy Strayhorn, that incredible Musician/ Composer, was gay.  In the entertainment/ film business, being gay was treated in the main as a crime at that time. Gays were ridiculed, humiliated and, very often, brutally beaten up or killed. Duke protected Billy with all the love of a father. No, I'm not gay myself, I love the ladies, but along with Religion, Politics etc, that gay discrimination bit belongs in the trash can. We all live in glass houses. I quoted Duke right at the beginning of my article - " I don't believe in categories ". Amen to that. 
Duke's incredible musical talent produced some of the most revolutionary ideas in musical history. He had the ability and the opportunity to combine jazz improvisation with his formal, but essentially self taught knowledge of Western Harmony, lace it with the soul of the Afro American people and produce works that are as fresh and meaningful today as the day they were created. "Mood Indigo"  "Sohisticated Lady"  - these are incredible compositons, justifiably termed musical Works of Art. He lifted black music into the realms of Symphony with suites such as "Black, Brown And Beige" and "Harlem". How many Robin Ford fans know that his hit " Aint Got Nothin' But The Blues" was written by Edward Kennedy Ellington. Check it out. It was recorded by Ella Fitzgerald in 1944 and Duke's co-writers were D.Jorge and L.Fortin .Duke's compositions number in the hundreds. Here are the titles of just a few :-'Black And Tan Fantasy" "Mood Indigo" "In A Sentimental Mood" "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Aint Got That Swing" "I'm Beginning To See The Light" "Satin Doll" "Take The A-Train" His compositions, some of which are three quarters of a century old, still light the way for legions of today's artists and composers. Everyone in the  business acknowledges the Duke's incredible and invaluable contribution to musical development and to just sheer listening pleasure. And here's another facet of Duke's music. Although he could present works which are rightly termed Suites and Symphonies, they were enjoyed by everyone, not just music affecionados,or those with classical education and tastes. The ordinary guy in the street knew and loved Duke's music. It was classless and timeless. It was essentially music of the people, elevated to the highest degree of artistic accomplishment and refinement but never losing sight of it's soul. The list of his Grammy Awards stretches from 1959 to the year 2000 at my last count. In 1959 at the 2nd annual Grammy Awards he won in three categories, those of :- best musical composition, best sound track album and best performance by " A Dance Band", all three being for the film" Dial M For Murder". His Major Works include : "Black, Brown And Beige" "A Drum Is A Woman" "New Orleans Suite" ""Paris Suite" "The Nutcracker Suite" "Shakespearean Suite" and these are just six of his fifteen suites. As one writer put it, most succinctly, it is impossible to find adjectives to describe Duke Ellington. Superlatives just don't do the job. His Achievement is truly staggering.
The list of musicians who worked with Him are great Stars in their own right, each one a tour de force in musical accomplishment. Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Billy Strayhorn, who co-wrote with Duke on many great compositions. Oscar Pettiford, Barney Bigard, Paul Gonsalves, Cootie Williams, Al Sears. Everyone a giant. Many of them stayed with Duke for Decades. He used his royalties to keep his Orchestra together for more than fifty years, and the music featured was that of Duke Ellington. His musical ouput was so enormous it required a full time orchestra handle it.  The only other composer who needed an orhestra to handle his work on a fulltime basis was Franz Josef Haydn, and that orchestra was maintained by a certain Count Esterhazy. Duke maintained his orhestra himself. Composer,Musician, Businessman.
He  knew that what he was achieving musically was of enormous value and he knew that it had to be handled right. The thing that shines though in Duke's work is Integrity. Musical integrity. The performances are something else, but in pure musical analysis Edward Kennedy Ellington's use of form combined with freedom of expression couched in honed musical discipline -  well, there You have it - I'm trying to use words to communicate that which is quite unexplainable, the Spirit and Magic of the great Creative process, of Duke Ellington, and that is essentially a listening experience. So what was the rock that this gentleman had as a foundation for his life and his Art ? He believed in Dear Sweet God Almighty and from this he believed implicitly in himself and what he was doing. His Mother would tell him he was blessed, and He believed it. I can think of nothing stronger. As early as 1936 Duke was receiving awards that reflected great social change and artistic freedom in America and the two went hand in hand. The Afro American was showing that when you literally have sweet damn all money wise, you still have guts. You still have talent. You still have spirit. You will fight till your final breath. Get off your ass and use it. Work at it .
Rehearse, practice, work, rehearse, practice,work. Artistic talent isn't enough. Having control over the forces, the elements, of music requires dilligence, discipline, study and application. In 1936  Duke received the keys to the City of Los Angeles. In 1966 he was presented with the President's Gold Medal on behalf of Lyndon Johnson. In 1969 He received the presidential medal of Freedom from Richard Nixon. Duke's band played everywhere fom New York to Delhi, London to Los Angeles. Among the many illustrious Stars his Orchestra has accompanied are Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong. He has influenced great musicians including Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane and has virtually left his personal indelible stamp on World Music . He has also entertained everyone from Queen Elizabeth II to President Richard Nixon. His music has survived decades of technological change and innovation. From shellac, 78's, 45's. L.p's, cassettes, cd.s and I have no doubt we'll be listening to Him one hundred years from now and longer. Duke is timeless. In Central Park on July 1'st 1997, a memorial statue to Duke Ellington was unveiled. Created by the American Artist Robert Graham, it is a fitting tribute to this great man and musician.
I can think of no better point to leave my story and bid you, the reader, Adieu, or rather Au Revoir. I hope you have enjoyed my article on Edward Kennedy Ellington and hope it may have encouraged you to find out more about this wonderful talented gentleman. The web is full of information . I leave You with these inspiring words from Duke : " A problem is a chance to do your best ". Amen.  Duke died in 1974. God Bless His memory and his Music.    
 all articles (c) JoeMoretti music International