We’re celebrating the birth of Edward Kennedy Ellington, better known as the “Duke.” With drive, charisma, and vision, Ellington became one of the first artists to successfully bridge the worlds between popular and serious music.
Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” arranged and played by Debra Lew Harder. Duke Ellington wrote “Solitude” in 1934. He said he composed it "in 20 minutes in Chicago, standing up against the glass office enclosure waiting for another band to finish recording.” The Duke recorded and performed the piece many times in the late '30s and beyond. It became a hit for Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald, and has been covered by countless jazz artists.
During his long career, Ellington wrote or co-wrote and performed countless popular hits, but he also possessed the stature to bring jazz to venues such as Carnegie Hall and Westminster Abbey as a significant, weighty art form. The energy of his music and the brilliance of his band's playing compelled audiences to listen and to absorb, across all social strata and regardless of race.
Duke Ellington was born April 29, 1899, in Washington, D.C. to a middle-class Black family. As a boy he was adept at sports, visual art, and music, and began piano studies at age 7. By the time he was a teen, he was writing songs and playing piano (ragtime and stride piano) professionally. He was nicknamed the "Duke" by a friend, because of his impeccable dress and manners.
In 1927, Ellington put together a five-musician dance band that became the house band of the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. The band broadcast over the radio every week, and toured in England and Scotland in 1933 and 1934, where they began to gain a large international following.
Throughout the eras spanning the Great Depression, World War II and beyond, Ellington and his big band thrived, despite changing styles and lean times, due to Ellington’s charisma, his conducting skills, pianistic flair, business acumen, and most of all, his ear for creating an inimitable sound. He could compose quickly, while on tour, and created works that highlighted the specific talents of his band members. Many of his thousands of songs, and those co-written with members of his band or by his arranger Billy Strayhorn, went on to become huge hits and jazz standards.
Ellington expanded his fame and appeal to both Black and white audiences with appearances in Hollywood films, conducting his band with an elegant demeanor and debonair appearance.
Not content with popular and commercial success, Ellington wanted to prove that jazz was a serious, profound art form. He created large-scale works that could be compared to classical music’s oratorios and symphonic suites and tone poems. He performed his concert-length Black, Brown, and Beige to a capacity, multi-racial crowd at Carnegie Hall in 1943 --Frank Sinatra was among the celebrities in attendance. Black, Brown, and Beige depicted in music the horrors of slavery and the suffering of Black people from Jim Crow through the present day. Its purpose was to educate and unify its audience.
Arturo Toscanini commissioned Ellington to write Harlem, a lengthy jazz work premiered by the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1959. In that same serious vein, Ellington considered his 80-minute Sacred Concert (performed in different versions in 1965, 1968, and 1973) the “most important thing I have ever done.” This work melds jazz and Ellington’s life-long devotion to the Christian faith in 11 movements, starting with “In the Beginning God” and ending with “The Lord’s Prayer II.”
Ellington died in New York City at age 75 of lung cancer, and was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. In his ability to move beyond boundaries, both societal and artistic, Duke Ellington was a force as vital and as quintessentially American as jazz itself.