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Biography of Duke Ellington

Ellington, Duke (1899-1974), American jazz composer, orchestrator, bandleader, and pianist, considered the greatest composer in the history of jazz music and one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. Unlike other great bandleaders, Ellington personally created most of the music played by his orchestra. With musical insight and sensitivity, he wrote pieces designed for specific players in his band. By writing highly personal harmonies, by concerning himself with new musical forms (ways of ordering and presenting musical ideas), and by creatively using tone color (quality of sounds), he created a body of innovative and original music. Ellington composed about 2000 works, including musical comedies, music for ballet and motion pictures, an opera, and numerous short songs and instrumentals. He composed exclusively for his jazz big band seeking out players with distinct musical styles. Beginning in the 1930s and throughout the remainder of his career, Ellington toured incessantly with his group, logging an estimated 16 million km (10 million mi) of travel and playing an estimated 20,000 performances throughout the United States and in 65 other nations around the world. Born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington, D.C., into a middle-class family, he acquired the nickname Duke as a child for his manners, clothing, and personality. His parents had musical backgrounds, and by the time Ellington was a teenager he was playing piano in a musical style known as ragtime. He began playing for friends and at parties and soon formed a small dance band named The Duke's Serenaders. In 1923 Ellington moved to New York City, where he sought out musicians who could contribute special sounds to his band. In particular, American trumpeter James Bubber Miley, whose playing was characterized by unique sounds achieved through the use of mutes (sound-altering devices), helped transform Ellington's combo (small ensemble) from a polite society band into a respected jazz group. In 1927 Ellington began performing at the Cotton Club, the most prominent nightclub in the Harlem area of New York City at the time. In the late 1920s Ellington composed for and recorded with his 12-member orchestra such pieces as

Black and Tan Fantasy (1927), The Mooche (1928), and Mood Indigo (1930). Through recordings such as these and through radio broadcasts from the Cotton Club, Ellington gained a national and international reputation. In 1931 he took his band on its first tour of the United States. With his piece It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing) (1932), Ellington anticipated the era when swing music and dancing became a national obsession in the United States. After 1932 Ellington enlarged his orchestra to 14 members, and in 1939 he hired a gifted young American arranger, Billy Strayhorn, who became his musical collaborator. Strayhorn wrote one of the Ellington orchestra's signature tunes, Take the A Train (1941). By 1940 Ellington's band included some of the best American jazz instrumentalists: saxophonists Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, trombonists Lawrence Brown and Joseph Tricky Sam Nanton, trumpeters Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams, and bassist Jimmy Blanton. In the early 1940s, the Ellington orchestra made many brilliant recordings, such as Ko-Ko (1940) and Concerto for Cootie (1940), an example of the small jazz concerto that Ellington pioneered. During this period his orchestra also recorded so-called tone poems (see Symphonic Poem), such as Dusk (1940) and Moon Mist (1941), as well as the pieces Cotton Tail (1940) and Main Stem (1942), which anticipated the bebop style of 1940s jazz. In 1943 the Ellington orchestra performed for the first time at New York City's Carnegie Hall, a prestigious musical venue, with the piece Black, Brown, and Beige (1943), one of Ellington's longest and most ambitious compositions. Thereafter the band played Carnegie Hall more or less annually until 1952, and it became known as a concert band as well as a dance band. In the late 1940s Ellington's band, which generally maintained a remarkably stable membership, experienced a higher rate of turnover among musicians and went into creative and commercial decline. By this time, the band had expanded to 18 members, now considered a standard size for a jazz big band.

In 1953 Ellington recorded the album Piano Reflections (1953), on which some of his most enduring work as a pianist can be found. He subsequently earned critical success with recordings of suites, composed for concerts and records, including A Drum Is a Woman (1956), Such Sweet Thunder (1958), and The Far East Suite (1966), as well as with the motion-picture soundtrack Anatomy of a Murder (1959). A religious man, Ellington began composing liturgical works (which he called sacred concerts) in the 1960s. Over the course of his career, Ellington wrote a number of pieces that became standards in the jazz repertory. Although some of the instrumental pieces he composed were subsequently set to lyrics and became hits as songs, including Sophisticated Lady (1933) and Don't Get Around Much Any More (1942), Ellington's greatest legacy was his work as an instrumental composer. Ellington's music is defined by common musical threads, such as the sounds of muted brass instruments and high, wailing clarinet; distinctive harmonies; his unique piano playing; and unusual combinations of instruments. Ellington's other innovations include the use of the human voice as an instrument, such as in Creole Love Call (1927) and On a Turquoise Cloud (1947). He also employed musicians who could play their instruments in a manner that mimicked a voice; Tricky Sam Nanton, for instance, made talking sounds on his trombone. Ellington often wrote evocative music including Daybreak Express (1933) and Happy-Go-Lucky Local (1946), inspired by his experiences with trains; and Caravan (1936), which he intended as a portrait of a colorful locale. Many of his works affirm his African American heritage, including the longer pieces Symphony in Black (1934); Black, Brown, and Beige; and Harlem Suite (1951). During his lifetime, Ellington received hundreds of distinctions, including 11 Grammy Awards and 19 honorary doctorate degrees. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the United States (1969) and the Legion of Honor by France (1973), the highest civilian honors in each country, respectively. In 1988 the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., acquired his entire archive200,000 pages of unpublished music and other documentsand made it available to researchers, musicians, and the general public.
Biography from Encarta