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WRTI 90.1's Essential Jazz Artist No. 6: Duke Ellington

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Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

There are not enough letter O's in smooth when you’re talking about the Duke. Ellington was elegance personified. This band leader was refined in everything—from how he dressed, to his compositions, to his playing, to his connection with audiences. But no matter how smooth his manner or refined his looks, it all came down to one thing—“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” And boy, did Ellington swing.

Feeling that jazz was as much a part of music as anything else, he helped to elevate its profile—and expand its audience—in America and around the world. WRTI listeners voted Duke Ellington their No. 6 Most Essential Jazz Artist.

  • He came by his talent naturally; both his parents were pianists.
  • His mother, Daisy, taught him always to be well mannered, well spoken, and dignified in their Washington, D.C. circles, especially around ladies. His friends noticed, and nicknamed him “Duke”
  • He’d rather play baseball than practice piano, and said that President Teddy Roosevelt “would come by on his horse sometimes, and stop and watch us play."
  • He wrote more than 1,700 songs, and received 13 GRAMMY awards.
  • The Pulitzer Prize was awarded to him posthumously in 1999.

Susan Lewis looks at the song—and the event—that re-invigorated Ellington’s career in 1956.