Edward Kennedy Ellington, called Duke by fellow musicians because of his style and manners, was bom in Washington, DC, where he was educated in segre¬ gated schools. He dropped out of high school as a senior and took up music professionally, though he was offered a scholarship to Pratt Institute in New York City for his skill as an artist.
Writing his first song at 17, “The Soda Fountain Rag,” about the Poodle Dog Cafe where he worked after school, Ellington formed a band called The Washingtonians and took it to New York City in 1922.Though the first trip did little more than introduce the band to influential musicians like Fats Waller and Willy Smith, their second trip in 1923 landed a gig at the Hollywood Club.
They set¬ tled in, and within four years the Washingtonians were playing the legendary Cotton Club. After five years on stage and on radio shows recorded at the Cotton Club, Ellington had gained a wide reputation as one of the finest composers in America. His “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” “Mood Indigo,” and “The Mooche” all became big hits and crossed over the waters to a European audience.
Touring Europe, writing innovative pieces like “Black, Brown and Beige,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “The A Train,” Ellington weathered the Depression and World War II, appeared in films, and used the “African pulse” to create compositions that gained him respect throughout his life.
“The common root, of course, comes out of Africa. That’s the pulse. The African Pulse. Its all the way back from what they first recognized as the old slave chants and up through the blues, the jazz, and up through the rock. And the avant garde. And it’s all got the African pulse.”
Even Ellington’s voice had a rhythm and a pulse. As the musical ambassador for the US State Department, Ellington toured the Middle and Far East in the 1960s, using style and world-class rhythm to ignite respect.
Prolific until his death in 1974, he conduct¬ ed his own Golden Broom and the Golden Apple in 1965 at Lincoln Center, conducted at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1965, and was elected to the elite National Institute of Arts & Letters in 1970.
His musical portfolio includes over 900 compositions, among them some of Ameri¬ ca’s most exquisite. He was a welcome per¬ former everywhere, and enchanted audi¬ ences from Chicago’s Civic Opera House to New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House.