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Known as the innovator of the ‘big-band,’ Duke Ellington may be one of, if not the most quintessential figures in jazz history and music at large of the 20th century.
As a pianist, conductor, and songwriter, Duke Ellington was able to electrify audiences with his colorful pieces that stood the test of time. Ellington’s influence in jazz was and is so great that he has helped to create several other jazz legends as well.1
A Brief History
Ellington was born in the heart of the nation’s capital, Washington D.C., in April 1899, where he began learning the piano at an early age. Originally named Edward Kennedy Ellington, he earned the name ‘Duke’ at the age of 15 because he carried the persona of a gentleman.2 At the age of 17, Duke headed up to New York to begin his career as a professional musician in a move that would serve as the starting point of one of the most prolific music careers in history.
Ellington began gaining notoriety in New York in the ‘20s by playing in basement clubs and other similarly situated venues. At that time, Jazz was a young, but fast-growing genre captivating audiences everywhere.
Playing near Broadway, Ellington and his band were one of many that capitalized on the genre’s upward trend, attracting numerous patrons to various bars and ‘hole-in-the-wall’ jazz joints where they’d perform from night until early dawn at times.
Among all competitors in the area, Duke Ellington’s band really stood out. On top of rewarding the crowds with his eclectic sounds and expert piano playing, the experience proved to be very beneficial for Ellington’s development as well. While in New York, he began listening to other popular jazz bands in the area and crafted his sound under the influence of other prominent jazz musicians in the area such as Fletcher Henderson and Bubby Miley.3
The Cotton Club
By the end of that decade (20’s), Duke’s following was enormous, leading him to score the highly-coveted role of in-house band at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club.4
It cannot be understated how important the Cotton Club Orchestra was for Duke Ellington’s later career and legacy. Coming in right at the cusp of the Harlem Renaissance, Duke turned his steady gigs at the Cotton Club into legend.
Located on the second floor of 644 Lexington on the corner of West 142nd in Harlem, the club functioned under the ownership of multiple mobsters and bootleggers as well. However, it wasn’t just Ellington’s amazing performances for the venue’s regular audience alone that made him legendary. Ellington’s popularity grew because the band was captured as part of a nationally syndicated weekly radio show.5 Exposing this level of sheer talent to the entire nation was a surefire way to guarantee Duke’s future stardom.
Riding on the wave of his newfound popularity, Duke left the club in the early ‘30s to begin touring around the nation and featuring his band’s music in various motion pictures. It was at this point that Duke Ellington began to incorporate various elements of Latin American influence into his music, an element of many jazz songs that continues to thrive today.6
Changing The Face Of Jazz Music
The Duke also incorporated various aspects of the cultural music he was exposed to in his tours around Europe into his jazz as well, creating a unique blend of music that was previously unheard before anywhere. During this period of the 30’s, Ellington was a very busy man making hundreds of recordings for various purposes with numerous different entities.
One of the things that made Ellington stick out as a composer was not just his ability to aggregate an impressive big band, but also feature amazing individual instrumentalists as well. He also changed the trajectory of jazz music itself by incorporating various instruments together in a format that had never been used in unison before, such as clarinets and trumpets for example. His use of woodwind instruments, in particular, was something that helped him to develop different flavors and textures within his music and push the sound to a new echelon. Many jazz composers today still incorporate this method of composing and arranging in their music, with a tip of the cap to The Duke, whether they know it or not.
New Standards & Timeless Classics
During the 40’s, Ellington began to create more of the pieces that would serve the test of time and end up becoming enduring classics. Partnering with some of his band mates, Ellington was able to create timeless pieces such as ‘Take the A Train’, ‘Caravan’, ‘Concerto for Cootie’, ‘Cotton Tail’, and many others.7
In addition, Duke Ellington created jazz ballads and other pieces at a similar tempo that featured lead jazz singers. This innovation helped to set the tone for future artists such as Frank Sinatra whom recorded over many Duke Ellington pieces. It was through this innovation that created or bolstered legends such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Chuck Mingus, John Coltrane among others.
Legacy Of The Duke
Later in his career, Ellington continued to find a substantial amount of success as a composer, touring around essentially all of the continents in the world and exposing various cultures and fans to the blessings of his live performance. Constantly pushing jazz to its conceptual limit and evolving previous notions of what qualified as great jazz music, Duke Ellington’s prowess, creative genius, and daring as a composer and musician is unquestionable.
By taking an already abstract and formless genre and experimenting with it in a favorable way, Ellington was able to sonically elicit a pallet of emotions that the listener was unable to receive elsewhere. Whether it was through the blazing speed of his swing pieces or the beautiful ballads that elicited the sweetest amount of tension at times before resolving on a elegant dominant seventh chord following the dissonant augmented, Duke never failed to provide a captivating magnificence in his music that demanded the attention of others like a slow-motion car crash with the delicacy of a rose unveiling its pedals in the early spring.
It is nearly impossible today to listen to any jazz music that wasn’t either composed by Duke Ellington or directly influenced by his innovations. Some of the standard charts that he was releasing in the ‘40s are still commonly played and requested in popular jazz bars, clubs, and concerts around the world. They are also often considered to be the common denominator for jazz listeners of all backgrounds, specialties, and inclinations. Perhaps there is no other aspect than this one that serves as a testament of Duke Ellington’s genius than to produce classics timeless enough to thrive in the genre over a half century later. In essence, you can’t spell jazz without Duke Ellington.