The achievements of Duke Ellington (1899-1974) are staggering. The pianist led the greatest of all jazz orchestras, in the opinion of many, without a break for half a century. Its ranks were filled with world-class soloists. Many graduated to successful careers of their own, while others remained for decades. And Ellington composed with his musicians in mind, tailoring some 1,500 short and long works to fit their individual musical personalities. He financed the orchestra though royalties from his recordings and compositions, as well as from box-office receipts, in order to afford himself the luxury of being able to hear his music performed almost from the moment of its conception.
“Other leaders,” Ellington biographer Stanley Dance once noted, “went looking for men who fitted a common predetermined pattern, which was why so many big bands tended to sound the same except when their stars were soloing. Ellington constantly sought out musicians who could give his imagination something new to work on and who also made his band sound different from any other.”
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born and raised in Washington, DC, and studied piano as a child, though he didn’t take it too seriously at first, preferring to play baseball. He wrote his first composition, “Soda Fountain Rag,” at age 15 and was soon playing piano at parties. “I learned that when you were playing piano,” he recalled years later, “there was always a pretty girl standing down at the bass clef end of the piano. I ain’t been no athlete since.”
By 1923, the always-suave pianist was playing New York City clubs with a band called the Washingtonians that included saxophonist Otto Hardwick and drummer Sonny Greer. Ellington became leader the following year, and the band’s unique style began to evolve, especially after growl trumpet specialist Bubber Miley joined in 1925. Under the guidance of manager Irving Mills, the band began recording prolifically in 1927 and was engaged for a four-year residency at the Cotton Club in Harlem, where Ellington provided music for the ever-changing floor shows.
The orchestra continued to flower on records, in motion pictures, and on tours to Europe and throughout the U.S. during the 1930s and reached what many feel was its creative pinnacle between 1939 and ’42, when tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and bassist Jimmie Blanton were both members. In 1941, with financial backing from friends in the film industry, Ellington composed the stage musical Jump for Joy in an attempt to counter the negative images of African-Americans that prevailed in both musical theater and motion pictures. Although it closed after a 12-week run in Los Angeles, Jump for Joy marked he beginning of an interest in creating extended works, many with socially significant themes, that was unabated for the rest of Ellington’s life.
Baritone saxophonist Harry Carney stayed with Ellington longer than any sideman, from 1927 until ’74. Alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, the band’s most popular soloist, spent almost as long in the reed section, from 1928 to ’51 and again from 1955 to ’70. Among numerous other members of note were trumpeters Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams, Ray Nance, Cat Anderson, and Clark Terry; cornetist Rex Stewart; trombonists Joe Nanton, Juan Tizol, and Lawrence Brown; clarinetists Barney Bigard and Jimmy Hamilton; saxophonists Ben Webster and Paul Gonsalves; bassists Wellman Braud, Jimmy Blanton, and Oscar Pettiford; drummers Sonny Greer, Louie Bellson, and Sam Woodyard; and vocalists Ivie Anderson and Al Hibbler.
The most enduring songs written by Ellington include “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Mood Indigo,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Solitude,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me” (aka “Concerto for Cootie”), “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (aka “Never No Lament”), “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” and “Satin Doll.” Among his extended works are Black, Brown, and Beige; The Liberian Suite, Such Sweet Thunder, The Far East Suite, The Latin American Suite, The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, and three sacred concerts. Ellington’s theme song, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” was composed by his longtime associate, pianist Billy Strayhorn.