Duke Ellington bio

Duke Ellington bio


ChickenBones: A Journal

for  Literary & Artistic African-American  Themes



“Never forget , your wife is beautiful. Though youth may leave us, beauty

can always find a home within. Sometimes beauty slumbers but even

then requires merely an appropriately gentle nudge to reawaken.”



CDs by Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington and John Coltrane  /  Ellington at Newport  / The Great Summit  / The Count Meets the Duke  / Blues in Orbit

The Very Best of Duke Ellington / Three Suites / Piano Reflections / Far East Suite / Masterpieces-1926-1949 / Money Jungle

*   *   *   *   *

Duke Ellington 

Bio-Chronology 1899-1974



1899—Born April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C., delivered by a midwife named Eliza Jane Johnson at 2129 Ward Place, N.W., at the home of his paternal grandparents. His parents Daisy Kennedy Ellington and James Edward Ellington, ideal role models, taught him everything from proper table manners to an understanding of the emotional power of music.

*   *   *   *   *

Critique of Duke Ellington’s America by Harvey G. Cohen—Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in 1899, in Washington, D.C., at a time when the nation’s capital was arguably the best place for an African-American child to live. The largest urban Negro community in the country maintained its own opera company, classical-music groups, and literary societies; its segregated schools taught African history, stressed proper manners and speech, and were intent on producing students who were, in Ellington’s phrase, “representative of a great and proud race.” For many years, from Emancipation through the imposition of onerous racial restrictions by the Wilson Administration, climaxing in a brutal, white-sparked riot following the First World War, the upper stratum of the city’s black population held to a proto-Harlem Renaissance ideal: demonstrate how civilized, intelligent, and accomplished we are, and racism will fade away. One need not demand respect if one commands it.—Claudia Roth, NewYorker

*   *   *   *   *

1906-1907—Duke’s first piano lessons came around the age of seven or eight and appeared to not have that much lasting effect upon him. It seemed as if young Duke was more inclined to baseball at a young age. Duke got his first job selling peanuts at Washington Senator’s baseball games. This was the first time Duke was placed as a “performer” for a crowd and had to first get over his stage fright. 

1913—Began to sneak into Frank Holliday’s poolroom. His experiences from the poolroom taught him to appreciate the value in mixing with a wide range of people. 

1913-1917—Attended Armstrong Manual Training School to study commercial art instead of an academically-oriented school

Began to show a flare for the artistic. Nicknamed “Duke” by a boyhood friend who admired his regal air, the name stuck and became indelibly associated with the finest creations in big band and vocal jazz.

Began to seek out and listen to ragtime pianists in Washington and during the summers, where he and his mother vacationed in Philadelphia or Atlantic City.

Heard a hot pianist named Harvey Brooks. Later sought Harvey out in Philadelphia where Harvey showed Duke some pianistic tricks and shortcuts. Duke later recounted that, “When I got home I had a real yearning to play. I hadn’t been able to get off the ground before, but after hearing him I said to myself, ‘Man you’re going to have to do it.’” Thus the music career of Duke Ellington was born.

Taken under the wings of Oliver “Doc” Perry and Louis Brown who taught Duke how to read music and helped improve his overall piano playing skills. 

Found piano playing jobs at clubs and cafes throughout the Washington area. 

Dropped out of school and began his professional music career, three months shy of graduation, 

1917 (late)—Formed his first group: The Duke’s Serenaders.

1918-1919—Moved out of his parents’ home and into a home he bought for himself. Became his own booking agent for his band. Play throughout the Washington area and into Virginia for private society balls and embassy parties.

1918—Married Edna Thompson. 

*   *   *   *   *

Duke Ellington Collection, 1927-1988, #301—In his early teens, Ellington sneaked into Washington clubs and performance halls where he was exposed to ragtime musicians, including James P. Johnson, and where he met people from all walks of life. He returned in earnest to his piano studies and at age fourteen wrote his first composition, “Soda Fountain Rag” aka “Poodle Dog Rag.” Ellington was earning income from playing music at seventeen years of age and around this time he earned the sobriquet “Duke” for his sartorial splendor and regal air. On July 2, 1918, he married a high school sweetheart, Edna Thompson; their only child, Mercer Kennedy Ellington, was born on March 11, 1919. Duke Ellington spent the first twenty-four years of his life in Washington’s culturally thriving Negro community. In this vibrant atmosphere he was inspired to be a composer and learned to take pride in his African-American heritage.—American History

*   *   *   *   *

1919 (March 11, 1919—Mercer Kennedy Ellington was born.

1920—Earned enough money to support both wife and child.

*   *   *   *   *

Critique of Duke Ellington’s America by Harvey G. Cohen—Charm, drive, and an audacious talent: he was barely out of his teens before he had established the Duke’s Serenaders and several other nicely profitable dance bands, and was supporting himself—and a wife and baby—in style. Yet, by his own account, even when he felt sure enough to try his fortunes in New York, age twenty-four, he had never actually written music. He had composed a few songs in his early years, and began composing again as soon as he hit Tin Pan Alley, but he had never written anything down and wasn’t entirely certain that he could. Ellington was himself something of an “ear cat,” and even as he learned what he needed to know, and his music became increasingly complex, his instinctual bias was for the more instinctual art. Partly, this was the natural democrat’s appreciation of the tough and unschooled African-American “gutbucket” sound; partly it was the natural aristocrat’s desire to make everything look easy. (“How was I to know that composers had to go up in the mountains, or to the seashore, to commune with the muses for six months?”)

Other popular composers have faced similar gaps between their early training and their goals; George Gershwin’s solution was to make himself a lifelong student, working with a series of teachers on harmony, counterpoint, orchestration. Ellington didn’t have the temperament for this approach, nor did it appear to offer what he needed. He had something all his own, something that made the arduous process of writing music yield immediate and exhilarating results: he had his band.—Claudia Roth, NewYorker

*   *   *   *   *

1923—Left the security of Washington and moved to New York under the encouragement of Fats Waller, during the formative Cotton Club years, experimented with and developed the style that would quickly bring him worldwide success and recognition.

Ellington would be among the first to focus on musical form and composition in jazz using ternary forms and “call-and-response” techniques in works like Concerto for Cootie (known in its familiar vocal version as Do Nothin’ till You Hear from Me) and Cotton Tail and classic symphonic devices in his orchestral suites. In this respect, he would

Made his first recording. Ellington and his renamed band, The Washingtonians, established themselves during the prohibition era by playing at places like the Exclusive Club, Connie’s Inn, the Hollywood Club (Club Kentucky), Ciro’s, the Plantation Club, and most importantly the Cotton Club. Thanks to the rise in radio receivers and the industry itself, Duke’s band was broadcast across the nation live on “From the Cotton Club.” 

1923-1927—Honed skills as a bandleader, songwriter, and pianist. Learned how to function within New York’s competitive musical scene. Sough professional opportunities with publishers and record companies.

*   *   *   *   *

Duke Ellington Collection, 1927-1988, #301—Ellington moved to New York City in 1923 to join and eventually lead a small group of transplanted Washington musicians called the “Washingtonians,” which included future Ellington band members, Sonny Greer, Otto Hardwicke and “Bubber” Miley. Between 1923 and 1927, the group played at the Club Kentucky on Broadway and the ensemble increased from a quintet to a ten-piece orchestra. With stride pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith as his unofficial guide, Ellington soon became part of New York’s music scene; Smith proved to be a long-lasting influence on Duke’s composing and arranging direction. At the Club Kentucky, Ellington came under the tutelage of another legendary stride pianist, “Fats” Waller. Waller, a protege of Johnson and Smith, played solos during the band’s breaks and also tutored Ellington who began to show progress in his compositions. In November, 1924, Duke made his publishing and recording debut with “Choo Choo (I Got To Hurry Home)” released on the Blu-Disc label. In 1925, he contributed two songs to Chocolate Kiddies, an all-black revue which introduced European audiences to black-American styles and performers. By this time Ellington’s family, Edna and Mercer, had joined him in New York City. The couple separated in the late 1920’s but they never divorced or reconciled.—American History

*   *   *   *   *

1926-1927—Distinctive qualities appeared in such pieces as East St. Louis Toodle-O, Immigration Blues, Black and Tan Fantasy, and Creole Love Call. After a decade of study and apprenticeship, Ellington emerged an original.

1927 (late)—Landed a job for his orchestra at the Cotton Club, one of New York’s premier nightspots, located in Harlem at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue. Operated by the gangster Owney Madden, patronized by wealthy whites, and staffed by blacks.

1928—Signed an agreement with Irving Mills to produce and published Ellington’s music. Recording companies like Brunswick, Columbia, and Victor came calling. Duke’s band became the most sought after band in the United States and even throughout the world.

Some of Ellington’s greatest works include, Rockin’ in Rhythm, Satin Doll, New Orleans, A Drum is a Woman, Take the “A” Train, Happy-Go-Lucky Local, The Mooche, and Crescendo in Blue.

1927-1931—Ellington and his orchestra remained at the Cotton Club, with periodic interruptions, until early February 1931. Expanded to twelve pieces, three reeds, three trumpets, two trombones, and four in the rhythm section (piano, banjo or guitar, bass, drums). Trumpeter Arthur Whetsol returned in 1928. 

Others joined Ellington: reed-players Johnny Hodges and Barney Bigard, trumpeter Freddie Jenkins, and in 1929, trumpeter Cootie Williams and valve trombonist Juan Tizol. 

Began to compose and record prolifically, turning out over 180 sides between December 1927 and February 1931 (compared with the 31 his band had make in nearly four years at the Kentucky Club). 

Under contract to Victor, recorded for other labels under various pseudonyms, such as The Jungle Band, The Whoopee Makers, and Mills Ten Blackberries.

1930—Appeared in film Check and Double Check.

1932—Boston critic R.D. Darrell wrote “Black Beauty,” the first serious essay on Ellington’s music to be published.

1932—(summer)—First visit to Europe. Six weeks in Britain with large audiences, appearances in Holland and France. At one private party the Duke of Kent asked Ellington to play Swampy River, and the Prince of Wales briefly took Sonny Greer’s place at the drums. While in London, the orchestra recorded for Decca and broadcast over the BBC.

*   *   *   *   *

Critique of Duke Ellington’s America by Harvey G. Cohen—The scrappy band of the early Kentucky Club days became an orchestra of a dozen players at the Cotton Club. But Ellington wanted an even larger sound: more color, more detail, more possibilities. By the time of the first European tour, in 1933, there were fourteen players, plus a vocalist; the group that was ultimately known as Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra had grown, by the mid-forties, to nineteen players, travelling and recording together, working and virtually living together, fifty-two weeks a year. These musicians were Ellington’s inspiration, not merely as professionals but as individuals with irreplaceable musical personalities. He did not write a “Concerto for Trumpet,” in 1939; rather, it was a “Concerto for Cootie”—that is, a work designed for the specific articulations of the superb trumpet player Cootie Williams, who replaced Bubber Miley and had already been with Ellington for about ten years. (“You can’t write music right,” Ellington told this magazine, more than sixty years ago, “unless you know how the man that’ll play it plays poker.”)—Claudia Roth, NewYorker

*   *   *   *   *

1934—Appeared with his orchestra in two Hollywood Films, Murder at the Vanities and Belle of the Nineties.

Made with his orchestra a Paramount short on their own, “Symphony in Black” (released in 1935), featuring the young Billie Holiday. 

1935—Mother Daisy dies.  Loss of his mother was especially traumatic which resulted in an extend period of mourning during which few new works appeared. Recorded in “Reminiscing in Tempo.”

1936—Wrote “Echoes of Harlem.”

1937—Father James Edward. dies. Recorded the two-part “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.

1937—Wrote “Azure.”

1937-1938—Returned to the Cotton Club, then located downtown on 48th Street.

*   *   *   *   *

Duke Ellington Collection, 1927-1988, #301—The ten years from 1932 to 1942 are considered by some major critics to represent the “golden age” for the Ellington Orchestra but it represents just one of their creative peaks. These years did bring an influx of extraordinary new talent to the band including Jimmy Blanton on double bass, Ben Webster on tenor saxophone and Ray Nance on trumpet, violin and vocals. During this 10-year span Ellington composed several of his best known short works, including “Concerto For Cootie,” “Ko-Ko,” “Cotton Tail,” “In A Sentimental Mood,” and Jump For Joy, his first full-length musical stage revue.

Most notably, 1938 marked the arrival of Billy Strayhorn. While a teenager in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Strayhorn had already written “Lush Life,” “Something To Live For” and a musical, Fantastic Rhythm. Ellington was initially impressed with Strayhorn’s lyrics but realized long before Billy’s composition “Take the A’ Train” became the band’s theme song in 1942 that Strayhorn’s talents were not limited to penning clever lyrics. By 1942, “Swee’ Pea” had become arranger, composer, second pianist, collaborator and as Duke described him, “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.” Many Ellington/Strayhorn songs have entered the jazz canon and their extended works are still being discovered and studied today. Strayhorn remained with the Ellington Organization until his death on May 30, 1967.—American History

*   *   *   *   *

1938—Left Mildred Dixon, a dancer he had met at the Cotton Club, for Beatrice “Evie” Ellis. Had separated from his wife in the late 20s.

1938—Wrote “Braggin’ in Brass.”

1939—Broke with manager Irving Mills and signed  with the William Morris Agency and moved to the publisher Jack Robbins.

1939–Wrote “The Sergeant Was Shy. “

1940—Wrote “Jack the Bear,” “Harlem Air Shaft,” “Concerto for Cootie,” “Ko-Ko,” and “Cotton Tail.”

*   *   *   *   *

Critique of Duke Ellington’s America by Harvey G. Cohen—But these musicians were sometimes his collaborators in a more unusual way, described by reporters who sat in, marvelling, on working sessions. Ellington would start off with a melody, or even just a few bars that were quickly tweaked and critiqued into a theme. Then, one by one, the improvisations began—Barney Bigard on clarinet, Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone, Tricky Sam Nanton on trombone were all especially fluent—with each player improving on the last player’s phrases, elaborating and extending, while the trombonist /copyist Juan Tizol caught the accumulating effects on paper (albeit not quite as fast as they kept coming). Ellington approved or rejected the additions, made changes and issued challenges, then usually took the results home and worked the whole thing over. The next day, there would be a few hours of refinement and repetition, until the piece was fixed and memorized. (Ellington always preferred memorization: how could you let loose if your nose was stuck in a score?) By this method, the time for creating or arranging a new number—most numbers were about three minutes long, the standard length of a 78-r.p.m. recording—appears to have been just two days. “My band is my instrument,” Ellington said, and the way he played it explains his music’s extraordinary mixture of freedom and control.

This collaborative process could create difficulties when Ellington employed a melody that he had overheard one of the musicians playing, or that a musician had sold him for a regulation fee. The main tune of “Concerto for Cootie,” for example, was something that Ellington bought from Williams for twenty-five dollars, a sum believed to be reasonable by both parties until, a few years later, words were added and it became a hit as “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me”—with no royalties for Williams. Johnny Hodges, the band’s most gorgeously lyrical player and a fount of melody—he contributed the tunes for “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart”—became so annoyed that, during performances, he mimed rubbing dollar bills between his fingers when Ellington launched into a number that Hodges felt was rightly his. One of Ellington’s most beloved songs, “Sophisticated Lady,” has several contributing claims and was described by the trombonist Lawrence Brown as “one of those where everybody jumps in.”—Claudia Roth, NewYorker

*   *   *   *   *

1941—America Entered World War II.

1941—Recorded Jump for Joy; Chelsea Bridge, Raincheck and a new theme for the orchestra, Take the “A” Train.

1941—Dispute between radio broadcasters and the American Society of Composers and Publishers in 1941, which stimulated the composition of new pieces since much of Ellington’s previous ASCAP-licensed repertory was banned from the airwaves

1942—Wrote Main Stem; A Slip of the Lip (May Sink a Ship).

1942-1944—Musicians’ union strike led to a recording hiatus of nearly a year and a half.

1943—Wrote the “tone parallel” “Black, Brown and Beige,” premiered 23 January 1943 at Carnegie Hall (Ellington’s debut). First major black composer—who worked in the jazz idiom and whose works usually were heard in nightclubs, ballrooms, and theaters rather in temples of high art—to present an evening of original music in New York’s most prestigious concert hall. a black composer. Thereafter over the next five years, Ellington performed Carnegie at regular, near-annual intervals.  New York celebrated “Ellington Week” from 17-23 January. 

*   *   *   *   *

Critique of Duke Ellington’s America by Harvey G. Cohen—None of Ellington’s musicians—not even Strayhorn—ever composed a hit on his own. Most important, all these works turned out to sound purely and recognizably like Ellington. For those who doubted that he was a “real” composer, here was the conundrum: How could the band have created Ellington, when Ellington created the band?

Despite the air of insouciance, Ellington took his composing seriously. It was gratifying to have people sit and listen to his music in a proper theatre, as they did for the first time in 1930, when the band accompanied Maurice Chevalier during a Broadway run and filled out the bill for an entire act. Coast-to-coast radio broadcasts from the Cotton Club had won the band an enormous following, and it gave concert-style performances throughout its first national tour, in 1931, usually performing in movie theatres between shows. Recordings had similarly prepared the way in England and France, where, in 1933, the band appeared on variety bills in the biggest venues, and was met with a respect that, for all its popularity, it had never known at home. Members of the group were suddenly being discussed not merely as entertainers but as artists, and it seemed that every note they played was considered to be—in the words of one British critic—“directly an expression of Duke’s genius.” —Claudia Roth, NewYorker

*   *   *   *   *

1943 (11 December)—Wrote for concert hall New World A-Coming. Engagement at New York’s Hurricane Club included broadcast. Ben Webster left orchestra.

*   *   *   *   *

Critique of Duke Ellington’s America by Harvey G. Cohen—“What we could not say openly, we expressed in music,” Ellington wrote in the British magazine Rhythm, in 1931, trying to explain the Negro musical tradition that had grown up in America, music “forged from the very white heat of our sorrows.” All his life, Ellington gave the impression of having been unscathed by racism, either in his early years—color, he said, was never even mentioned in his parents’ home—or during the long professional decades when it defined almost every move he made: where he could play his music, who could come to listen to it, whether he could stay in a hotel or attend another musician’s show, and where (or whether) he could find something to eat when the show was over. The orchestra made its first Southern tour just after its return from England, in 1933, travelling (thanks to Mills) in supremely insulated style: two private Pullman cars for sleeping and dining, and a separate baggage car for the elaborate wardrobe, scenery, and lights required to present a show more dazzling than any that most of the sleepy little towns where they made their stops had ever seen. Ellington made a special effort to perform for black audiences, even when it meant that the band added a midnight show in a place where it had performed earlier that night exclusively for whites. Reports from both racial groups were that the players outdid themselves; it is difficult to know where they felt they had more to prove.

Segregation was hardly peculiar to the South, of course, any more than it was limited, in New York, to the Cotton Club and its ilk. The down-and-dirty Kentucky Club had been no different: even without thugs at the door, there was an unspoken citywide dictate about where the different races belonged. The only exceptions were the “Black and Tans,” the few Harlem clubs that permitted casual racial mixing, and to which Ellington seems to have been paying tongue-in-cheek tribute with the not-quite-meshing themes of “Black and Tan Fantasy.” This was the first number played, after “The Star-Spangled Banner,” at Ellington’s landmark Carnegie Hall concert, in January, 1943, although the piece sounded very different from his twenties hit: taken at a slower tempo, with extended solos, it was twice its original length—so deliberative it seemed a kind of statement—and showed off the burnished power of Ellington’s forties band.—Claudia Roth, NewYorker

*   *   *   *   *

1944 (19 December)—Wrote for concert hall “Perfume Suite.” Engagement at New York’s Hurricane Club included broadcast. Richard O. Boyer wrote extensive profile in the New Yorker in which he dubbed Ellington “The Hot Bach.” Juan Tizol left orchestra

1945—Engaged at the Zanzibar Club, include broadcast. Rex Stewart left orchestra

1946 (23 November)—Wrote for concert hall  “Deep South Suite.” Otto Hardwick left orchestra; Joe Nanton died 20 July while on tour

1947 (27 December)—Wrote for concert hall “Liberian Suite.” Left Victor and signed with Columbia.

1948 (13 November)—Wrote for concert hall “The Tattooed Bride.”

1950—Paul Gonsalves joins Ellington band. Trip  to Europe (for the first time since 1939) and in 1958 and 1959.

1951—Wrote “Harlem.” Left Ellington orchestra—Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown, Sonny Greer and Tyree Glenn. Trumpeter Clark Terry and drummer Louie Bellson  joined Ellington band.

*   *   *   *   *

Duke Ellington Collection, 1927-1988, #301—In 1956, the American public rediscovered Duke and the band at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. The searing performances of tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves on “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue,” his premiere soloist, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges on “Jeep’s Blues” and the crowd’s ecstatic reaction have become jazz legend. Later that year Duke landed on the cover of Time magazine. Although Ellington had previously written music for film and television (including the short film, Black and Tan Fantasy in 1929) it wasn’t until 1959 that Otto Preminger asked him to score music for his mainstream film, Anatomy of a Murder, starring Jimmy Stewart. Paris Blues in 1961, featuring box-office stars Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier in roles as American jazz musicians in Paris, followed.

Ellington’s first performance overseas was in England in 1933 but the 1960’s brought extensive overseas tours including diplomatic tours sponsored by the State Department. Ellington and Strayhorn composed exquisite extended works reflecting the sights and sounds of their travels, including the Far East Suite, 1966. They wrote homages to their classical influences; in 1963, they adapted Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and celebrated Shakespeare’s works with the suite Such Sweet Thunder in 1957. With Ella Fitzgerald, they continued the Norman Granz Songbook Series. Ellington also began to flex his considerable pianist skills and recorded albums with John Coltrane (1963), Coleman Hawkins (1963), Frank Sinatra and Money Jungle (1963) with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. The First Sacred Concert debuted in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in 1965. In his final years, Ellington’s thoughts turned to spiritual themes and he added a Second (1968) and Third (1973) Concert of Sacred Music to his compositions.—American History

*   *   *   *   *

1953—Moved to Capitol in 1953 (the first session produced “Satin Doll”). 

1955—Wrote “Night Creature” for symphony and jazz orchestra.

1956—Wrote “A Drum is a Woman,”  for a television production. Appeared at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. Went back to Columbia. 

1957—Wrote “Such Sweet Thunder.”

1958—Made a trip  to Europe

1959—Wrote Tool Suite and Idiom; and Anatomy of a Murder for a Hollywood film directed by Otto Preminger. Made a trip  to Europe

*   *   *   *   *

Critique of Duke Ellington’s America by Harvey G. Cohen—The band had become a very expensive proposition, and was subsidized largely by those royalties from long-ago hits. Even when it had a big resurgence, thanks to an appearance at the Newport Festival, in 1956, the stir was due not to the newly minted “Newport Festival Suite” but to a crazily exciting six-minute improvisation by the saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, played between the paired 1937 pieces “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” Contrary to the long-term concertizing trend in Ellington’s music, the performance got people back on their feet and dancing again, and got Ellington on the cover of Time.

His renewed stature did not prevent controversy in the black community, however, when, in 1959, the N.A.A.C.P. gave Ellington its highest award. Recipients during the previous couple of years had been Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil-rights activists Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine. Now the editorial pages of African-American newspapers doubtfully inquired: What had Ellington done to deserve this honor? It wasn’t just a question of what music had to do with civil rights; Jackie Robinson had won in 1956, with no such questions raised about baseball. Rather, as the Time article had put it, “Duke is not a militant foe of segregation.” It went on to note that “he plays for segregated audiences on his annual swings through the South,” and added that Ellington had explained, with a verbal shrug, “Everybody does.”

What had he done to deserve the honor? The plainly factual answer is that he had raised a lot of money over the years playing benefits for the N.A.A.C.P., and for many other organizations that had asked for his help. But there were deeper answers. Ellington, offended by the accusation that he had been silent on civil rights, replied that those who doubted him had simply failed to use their ears. “They’ve not been listening to our music,” he said. “For a long time, social protest and pride in black culture and history have been the most significant themes in what we’ve done.” In sum: “We have been talking for a long time about what it is to be black in this country.” For Ellington, being black in this country meant approaching difficult issues in strategically different ways.

Earlier in the fifties, he had quarrelled with the N.A.A.C.P., in fact, over playing segregated theatres, arguing that his musicians needed to make a living, and that the N.A.A.C.P. ought to focus on more urgent matters (such as “the toilets and water fountains in colored waiting rooms”). At the same time, he had written privately to President Truman, asking if Truman’s daughter, Margaret—a concert singer—might serve as honorary chairwoman for an N.A.A.C.P. benefit, the proceeds of which were to be used “to stamp out segregation, discrimination, bigotry,” and other American ills. The letter was discovered by the music historian John Edward Hasse in the Truman Library, with Ellington’s request marked with the word “No!” underlined twice.—Claudia Roth, NewYorker

*   *   *   *   *

1963—Traveled to the Middle East and India. Wrote My People for Century of Negro Progress Exposition in Chicago, contained such religious pieces as such religious numbers as Ain’t But the One, Will You Be There?, and David Danced Before the Lord.

1964—Traveled to Japan. Composed Far East Suite.

1967—Billy Strayhorn dies.

1968—Traveled to Latin America and Mexico. Composed Latin American Suite.

1970—Composed Afro-Eurasian Suite. Collaborated with Alvin Ailey on the ballet The River. Johnny Hodges dies.

1971—Traveled to the Soviet Union. Composed Goutelas Suite.


Critique of Duke Ellington’s America by Harvey G. Cohen—In 1960, Ellington agreed to accompany some Johns Hopkins students, after a performance, to a Baltimore restaurant that had turned black students away, and to be captured by a local photographer being turned away himself; it was a major act in terms of the cost to his pride. In 1961, his booking contracts began to stipulate that he would not play before segregated audiences. He led a State Department tour, in 1963, designed to counter the news stories about American racism that were proving so useful to the Communist cause, and Cohen believes its political dividends helped to spur the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act. Cohen offers many other examples of Ellington as a sometimes surreptitious “race leader,” but it is almost embarrassing that he should have to make the effort.

Celebrating Ellington’s seventieth birthday, in 1969, Ralph Ellison recalled what it was like when, in his youth, in the thirties, the Ellington band came to Oklahoma City “with their uniforms, their sophistication, their skills; their golden horns, their flights of controlled and disciplined fantasy,” all of it like “news from the great wide world.” For black boys like Ellison all over the country, the band had been “an example and goal,” he wrote. Who else—black or white—had ever been “so worldly, who so elegant, who so mockingly creative? Who so skilled at their given trade and who treated the social limitations placed in their paths with greater disdain?”

Two years before Ellington died, in 1972, Yale University held a gathering of leading black jazz musicians in order to raise money for a department of African-American music. Aside from Ellington, the musicians who came for three days of concerts, jam sessions, and workshops included Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Mary Lou Williams, and Willie (the Lion) Smith. During a performance by a Gillespie-led sextet, someone evidently unhappy with this presence on campus called in a bomb threat. The police attempted to clear the building, but Mingus refused to leave, urging the officers to get all the others out but adamantly remaining onstage with his bass.

“Racism planted that bomb, but racism ain’t strong enough to kill this music,” he was heard telling the police captain. (And very few people successfully argued with Mingus.) “If I’m going to die, I’m ready. But I’m going out playing ‘Sophisticated Lady.’—Claudia Roth, NewYorker

*   *   *   *   *

1973—Wrote Music is my Mistress

1974 (24 May)—Dies from cancer.


*   *   *   *   *


Photo of Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington was recognized in his lifetime as one of the greatest jazz composers and performers.  A genius for instrumental combinations, improvisation, and jazz arranging brought the world the unique “Ellington” sound that found consummate expression in works like “Mood Indigo,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and the symphonic suites Black, Brown, and Beige (which he subtitled “a Tone Parallel to the History of the Negro in America”) and Harlem (“a Tone Parallel to Harlem”). 

Duke Ellington and his band went on to play everywhere from New York to New Delhi, Chicago to Cairo, and Los Angeles to London. Ellington and his band played with such greats as Miles Davis, Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, and Louis Armstrong. 

They entertained everyone from Queen Elizabeth II to President Nixon. Before passing away in 1974, Duke Ellington wrote and recorded hundreds of musical compositions, all of which continue to have a lasting effect upon people worldwide for a long time to come.

*   *   *   *   *

Duke Ellington Collection, 1927-1988, #301—Duke Ellington died on May 24, 1974 at seventy-five years of age. His funeral was held in New York’s Cathedral of St. John The Divine; he was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. His long-time companion Beatrice “Evie” Ellis was buried beside him after her death in 1976. He was survived by his only child, Mercer Kennedy Ellington, who not only took up the baton to lead the Duke Ellington Orchestra but assumed the task of caring for his father’s papers and his legacy to the nation. Mercer Ellington died in Copenhagan, Denmark on February 8, 1996, at the age of seventy-six. Ruth Ellington Boatwright, Duke’s only sibling, lives in New York City. Both Mercer and Ruth were responsible for shepherding the documents and artifacts that celebrate Duke Ellington’s genius and creative life to their current home in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.—American History

*   *   *   *   *

Archives Center Finding Aids—Duke Ellington Collection, 1927-1988, #301—History/Provenance Note—The acquisition of the Ellington Collection began with a chance encounter between Mercer Ellington and John Kinard, former Director of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum in October, 1985. Mr. Ellington was filming a public service announcement at the Anacostia Museum. During the event Mr. Ellington mentioned to Mr. Kinard that although his father’s tapes had been given to a radio station in Copenhagen, Denmark, Duke’s papers were still in Mercer’s possession. Mr. Kinard contacted Roger Kennedy, former Director of the National Museum of American History, who asked John Hasse, Curator of American Music, to pursue the lead.

Negotiations for the Collection began and in April, 1986, John Fleckner, Chief Archivist of the Museum and Dr. Hasse surveyed the material in New York City. After extensive negotiations the Duke Ellington Collection arrived at the National Museum of American History in April, 1988. Objects and artifacts—largely 3-dimensional materials—are housed in the Museum’s Division of Cultural History. (202-633-1707) Archival material—primarily music manuscripts, paper documents, photographs and audio material are housed in the Museum’s Archives Center.

The material has been a rich resource for study by Ellington and jazz scholars, musicians and cultural historians. Drawing largely from the material in the Collection, an exhibit titled Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington curated by Dr. John Hasse opened in the National Museum of American History on Duke’s birthday April, 28, 1993. The original exhibit plus three panel exhibits, all produced by Smithsonian Institution Traveling Services (SITES), continue to tour the United States.—American History

*   *   *   *   *

Duke Ellington Collection, 1927-1988, #301—Scope and Content Note—Dating approximately from the time Duke Ellington permanently moved to New York City in 1923 to the time the material was transferred to the Smithsonian institution in 1988 the bulk of the material in the Duke Ellington Collection is dated from 1934-1974 and comprises sound recordings, original music manuscripts and published sheet music, hand-written notes, correspondence, business records, photographs, scrapbooks, news clippings, concert programs, posters, pamphlets, books and other ephemera. These materials document Ellington’s contributions as composer, musician, orchestra leader, and an ambassador of American music and culture abroad. In addition, the materials paint a picture of the life of a big band maintained for fifty years and open a unique window through which to view an evolving American society.

The ca. 310 cubic feet of archival materials have been processed and organized into sixteen series arranged by type of material. Several of the series have been divided into subseries allowing additional organization to describe the content of the material. For example, Series 6: Sound Recordings, is divided into four subseries: Radio and Television Interviews, Concert Performances, Studio Dates and Non-Ellington Recordings. Each series has its own scope and content note describing the material and arrangement (for example; Series 10: Magazines and Newspaper Articles is organized into two groups, foreign and domestic, and arranged chronologically within each group). A container list provides folder titles and box numbers.

The bulk of the material is located in Series 1: Music Manuscripts and consists of compositions and arrangements by Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and other composers. Series 6: Sound Recordings also provides a record of the performance of many of these compositions. The materials in Series 2: Performances and Programs, Series 3: Business Records, Series 8: Scrapbooks, Series 9: Newspaper Clippings, Series 11: Publicity and Series 12: Posters provide documentation of specific performances by Duke Ellington And His Orchestra. Ellington was a spontaneous and prolific composer as evidenced by music, lyrical thoughts and themes for extended works and plays captured on letterhead stationery in Series 3: Business Records, in the margin notes of individual books and pamphlets in Series 14: Religious Materials and Series 15: Books and in the hand-written notes in Series 5: Personal Correspondence and Notes.

During its fifty-year lifespan, Duke Ellington And His Orchestra were billed under various names including The Washingtonians, The Harlem Footwarmers and The Jungle Band. The soloists were informally called “the band” and Series 3 includes salary statements, IOU’s, receipts and ephemera relating to individual band members.—American History

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books

For July 1st through August 31st 2011  


#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

*   *   *   *   *

Obama’s America and the New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander) / Michelle_Alexander Part II Democracy Now (Video)

Michelle Alexander Speaks At Riverside Church /  part 2 of 4  / part 3 of 4  / part 4 of 4

There are more African Americans under correctional control today–in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas, like Chicago, have been labeled felons for life. These men are part of a growing undercaste, not class, caste—a group of people who are permanently relegated, by law, to an inferior second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits—much as their grandparents and great-grandparents once were during the Jim Crow era.—Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow

*   *   *   *   *

The Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh, and Wailer

By Colin Grant

The definitive group biography of the Wailers—Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Livingston—chronicling their rise to fame and power. Over one dramatic decade, a trio of Trenchtown R&B crooners swapped their 1960s Brylcreem hairdos and two-tone suits for 1970s battle fatigues and dreadlocks to become the Wailers—one of the most influential groups in popular music. Colin Grant presents a lively history of this remarkable band from their upbringing in the brutal slums of Kingston to their first recordings and then international superstardom. With energetic prose and stunning, original research, Grant argues that these reggae stars offered three models for black men in the second half of the twentieth century: accommodate and succeed (Marley), fight and die (Tosh), or retreat and live (Livingston). Grant meets with Rastafarian elders, Obeah men (witch doctors), and other folk authorities as he attempts to unravel the mysteries of Jamaica’s famously impenetrable culture. Much more than a top-flight music biography, The Natural Mystics offers a sophisticated understanding of Jamaican politics, heritage, race, and religion—a portrait of a seminal group during a period of exuberant cultural evolution. 8 pages of four-color and 8 pages of black-and-white illustrations. Colin Grant Interview, The Natural Mystics

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

*   *   *   *   *

If you like this page consider making a donation

online through PayPal

*   *   *   *   *

Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


*   *   *   *   *

The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  /  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

*   *   *   *   *

The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

*   *   *   *   *



*   *   *   *   *






updated 11 June 2008




Home  Music  Musicians

Related files: Another Duke Ellington Story  Duke Ellington Bio   Digging Duke’s Suite at Newport

Post Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.