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Duke Ellington - Jazz Pianist, Composer, Jazz Orchestra Leader

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington believed that jazz was the embodiment of freedom of expression. He was a pianist, music composer, and figurehead of a jazz orchestra, with a distinguished career that spanned more than 60 years.

Duke Ellington at a piano

Early Life

Duke was born on the 29th of April, 1899, in Washington, D.C., to pianist couple of James and Daisy Ellington. The Ellington’s resided in the West End neighborhood of the capital, which displayed racial pride and support against the Jim Crow laws. When Edward turned seven, he started learning piano under Marietta Clinkscales. His mother also put her utmost efforts into reinforcing his manners, teaching him to dress elegantly - everything that resembled a young nobleman. Soon, his friends, especially Edgar McEntree, noticed this transformation and gave him the nickname “Duke.” At the age of fourteen, Ellington was already visiting Frank Holiday's Poolhall to hear the pianists performing there. This ignited his affection towards musical instruments, as he started attending piano studies more earnestly.

In 1914, he crafted his first composition while working as a “soda jerk” at the Poodle Dog Café, titled “Soda Fountain Rag.” He didn’t know how to read or write music, so the entire piece was crafted by ear. He also continued watching and listening to ragtime pianists while vacationing in various cities, including Atlantic City and Philadelphia. He was further enrolled under Henry Lee Grant, a music teacher, to study harmony. Oliver “Doc” Perry, a celebrated pianist, taught him to read sheet music. He worked on his technique and slowly adopted a professional style. His devotion towards music grew stringer, as he further rejected an art scholarship from the prestigious Pratt Institute in New York City.

The Arrival 

In 1917, Ellington was working simultaneously as a sign painter and a musician, putting together groups to perform for dances. He used his day job to promote his music. Whenever he was appointed to paint signs for a party or dance, he would inquire whether they have arranged for any musical entertainment. He would then offer to perform at the occasions that lacked such arrangements. He also landed the job of a messenger with the U.S. State departments and the Navy, further gaining a wide array of contacts. Later that year, he created a group named “The Duke's Serenaders,” also acting as the booking agent. The group started off with a performance at the True Reformer's Hall in Washington, D.C. In 1918, Duke tied the knot with Edna Thompson, his high school flame.

Duke and his band continued performing throughout the Capital and Virginia, especially at embassy parties and private society balls. The members of the band were - Sonny Greer (drums), Elmer Snowden (banjo), Arthur Whetsel (trumpet), Otto Hardwick (string bass and saxophone). The group became equally popular both white and African-American audiences, which was a scarce phenomenon in a racially discriminated society. After Sonny Greer left for the Wilber Sweatman Orchestra, Duke also moved back to Harlem. He went on to play a major role in the Harlem Renaissance, an art movement that revived African-American music. Next, the band met Willie “The Lion” Smith, an eminent stride pianist who offered financial help and also showed them around the scene. They also frequented the rent-house parties in the neighborhood to stay afloat. However, the young musicians soon became frustrated and returned to the capital.

Musical Journey 

In 1923, the band was traveling all across America, performing gigs in New Jersey, Atlantic City, and prestigious exclusive clubs in New York City. They followed this up with a four-year arrangement with the Hollywood Club, which propelled them to fame. The band was initially titled “Elmer Snowden and his Black Sox Orchestra,” but subsequently changed it to “The Washingtonians.” In 1924, Ellington recorded eight tracks and received composition credits for three of them, including the song “Choo Choo.” Next year, he composed four songs for an all-African-American revue, introducing new cultural styles and aspects to European audiences. His Kentucky Club Orchestra was flourishing, developing their own music and earning accolades. They dished out a delectable palette - local rhythms of Harlem, Ellington’s non-traditional renditions completed with exotic trumpets, saxophones, and trombones.

In 1926, Ellington signed up with Irving Mills, an influential agent-publisher as the duo started recording prolifically, with Mills often given credit as a co-composer. Mills introduced Ellington to almost every big recording label - Pathê, OKeh, Columbia, Victor, and Brunswick. In 1927, the tables turned significantly for Ellington and his group when they landed an audition at Harlem's prestigious Cotton Club. Duke had to increase his group size to eleven to meet the club standards during the audition. The agreement was finally signed in December. The aftermath was a huge success - the white and exclusively wealthy clienteles thronged the club to watch them. Ellington and his group also gained recognition while recording with Adelaide Hall, another acclaimed jazz singer. The number “Creole Love Call” became an instant sensation worldwide. In 1930, Ellington and his orchestra were offered the opportunity to perform at the Roseland Ballroom to great success. The group prospered with 6 bass instruments, 4 reeds, and its very own rhythm section. Ellington was an able leader. He was charming, humorous, witty, and had distinct musical psychology.

In 1932, Ellington grabbed an exclusive contract with Brunswick, which ran for four years. During this period, Ellington's and his band’s public profile were further boosted through radio exposure. The records during this period included - “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Solitude,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “Mood Indigo.” The orchestra gained a significant following overseas, especially in Europe. In 1933, they toured the United Kingdom, Netherlands, and France. At the London premiere, the crowd gave Ellington a standing ovation. In 1935, he recorded “Reminiscing in Tempo” as a tribute to his mother. At the peak of his career, he faced stiff competition from swing bands and swing dancing, which had turned into an overnight youth phenomenon. Ellington, who viewed swing as ‘business,’ was left unfazed as he stuck to his strengths - nuance, mood, and richness of music.  

In 1936, he started collaborating with specific instrumentalists. He composed with Barney Bigard on “Clarinet Lament,” with Cootie Williams on “Echoes of Harlem,” with Lawrence Brown on “Yearning for Love,” and with Johnny Hodges on “Jeep's Blues.” In 1938, he left his wife and son, moving in with the Cotton Club employee Beatrice ‘Evie’ Ellis. Their relationship remained turbulent throughout but continued even after Ellington got involved with Fernanda de Castro Monte.


In 1940, Ellington and his group continued to issue three-minute records at a steady pace, namely - “Jack the Bear,” “Harlem Air Shaft,” “Main Stem,” “Cotton Tail,” etc. The decade also marked the beginning of his collaboration with Billy Strayhorn, a fellow Jazz pianist, arranger, and composer. Their association lasted nearly 30 years. In 1941, Billy’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” became a smash hit and was adapted as the band’s theme. The great Mary Lou Williams also joined the band briefly as a staff arranger.

Next, Ellington concentrated on breaking the jazz barrier into long-form compositions. In 1943, his “Black, Brown and Beige’ marked the inception of such pieces. It premiered at the Carnegie Hall and was subsequently adapted into an annual concert. Another such composition, “Jump for Joy,” proved an exception. In spite of being sold-out and receiving critical acclaims, it only lasted for 122 performances. However, Ellington’s Broadway adventure wasn’t over, “Beggar's Holiday,” his book musical was later adapted by Nicholas Ray.

In 1951, the orchestra experienced an exodus, with Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown, and Sonny Greer leaving to pursue different ventures. They were replaced, but the band lost some of its glamour and glory. The watershed occasion took place in 1956 when Ellington performed at the Newport Jazz Festival. The band’s feature, “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” was one of their forgotten pieces, comprising two diverse tunes. When four key players failed to arrive on the day of the performance, Ellington took a gut call and changed the pre-determined schedule. He incorporated an interlude between the two pieces, which the saxophonist Paul Gonsalves was assigned to perform. Ellington lead from the front as Gonsalves’ marathon solo sparked the crowd into delirium, forcing him to continue playing well beyond the designated time. The band ignored the urgent pleas from the organizer and, in return, rose back to prominence with a new generation of fans in tow.

Their exploits made international headlines and were featured as the cover story of Time magazine. They also landed an album with George Avakian, which went on to become their best seller. The band subsequently re-recorded multiple numbers, incorporating fake crowd noises. In 1960, Ellington frequently collaborated with rival artists. He worked with John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, and Louis Armstrong. He also signed with Frank Sinatra's new label “Reprise,” but the association didn’t last long. Ellington passed away on the 24th of May, 1974, after suffering from bouts of pneumonia and lung cancer. He was buried at the Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.

Usage In Popular Culture

Picture of stamp or coin, Ellington on Washington DC

  • In 1929, Ellington worked in the African-American short film titled “Black and Tan.” 
  • In 1930, he appeared in the movie “Check and Double Check,” which was based on the popular sitcom titled “Amos 'n' Andy.”  
  • In 1934, Ellington and his band appeared in the feature films “Belle of the Nineties” and “Murder at the Vanities.”  
  • In 1935, Ellington’s “A Rhapsody of Negro Life” was featured in another short film titled “Symphony in Black.” 
  • In 1954, Dave Brubeck dedicated his composition “The Duke” to Ellington. 
  • In 1959, Ellington worked on the soundtrack of the famous movie “Anatomy of a Murder.” 
  • In 1961, he again composed the soundtrack of “Paris Blues,” which had Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman featuring as jazz musicians.  
  • The musical “The Real Ambassadors” has a vocal piece of Ellington’s “Swing Baby Swing.”
  • After Ellington’s demise, Miles Davis crafted a lament titled “He Loved Him Madly” as a tribute. 
  • In 1976, Stevie Wonder dedicated his song “Sir Duke” to Ellington. It was released through his album titled “Songs in the Key of Life.”
  • In 2002, Duke Ellington was listed on the list of “100 Greatest African Americans” by philosopher Molefi Kete Asante. 
  • Duke Ellington was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

A Jazz Visionary 

Ellington was widely embraced as one of the most influential figures in the history of jazz. However, the composer himself was never content with being preconceived to a single category. He adopted a stance to explore diverse musical styles, referring to his music as liberating, and more generally - American Music.

Of all the great jazz ensembles of the 1920s, nobody quite reached the zenith like Duke Ellington. He kept the spontaneity of jazz intact, further incorporating an added edge and oomph. No other composer expressed such variety, freedom, and sophistication while working with jazz. A sensitive and majestic pianist, he was the instrument that ticked the American orchestra. His work is a testament to the fact that a perfect musical balance can be achieved in the orchestra - that music can swing relentlessly while ascending the heights of emotional association.

His compositions were designed to bring the best out of his own musical prowess, along with the finest musical talents who shared his journey. These extraordinary musicians - including the Duke Ellington Orchestra cascaded some of the most special and unique musical thumbprints. Ellington successfully developed his own vivid and impressionistic subtlety, finely rooted in European classical music.

An imperious composer of pop melodies, Ellington was a keen innovator, one who saw and realized the potential of longer-form compositions in American orchestra. He offered his own vision of this flair through his expressive music, a trumpet call towards the endless possibilities. Duke Ellington truly defined categories that no other artist did. He embodied the evolution of jazz with such vigor and imagination - a true visionary. 

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