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Duke Ellington

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”Duke Ellington

Seventy-five years have passed since jazz composer Duke Ellington’s heyday, but his timeless tunes haven’t lost that “thing” that made them swing. During his 50-year career, Ellington wrote classics such as “Caravan,” “Daydream,” “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart,” and “In A Sentimental Mood.” These compositions were embraced by scores of fans and ensured Ellington a place in musical history.

Born in 1899 in Washington, DC, Ellington was considered one of the greatest jazz composers and performers who ever lived. The self-taught musician was best known for his unique instrumental combinations and jazz arranging.

Duke’s creativity was honed working as a band leader in famous New York clubs from 1927-1932. He and his band, “The Washingtonians” played hotspots such as the Exclusive Club, Connie’s Inn, the Hollywood Club (Club Kentucky), Ciro’s, the Plantation Club, and the Cotton Club. His skillful conducting and arranging attracted national attention through radio broadcasts called “From the Cotton Club.”

The Washingtonians’ music spread rapidly and by 1935, Duke and his band’s career was in full-swing. More hits emerged including “Sophisticated Lady,” “Mood Indigo,” “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” “Satin Doll,” “New Orleans,” “A Drum is a Women,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Happy-Go-Lucky Local,” “The Mooche,”and “Crescendo in Blue.”

The ensemble went on to play everywhere from New York to Los Angeles to London. They performed with greats such as Miles Davis, Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Louis Armstrong.

Ellington and his band’s success continued until the end of World War II, when the country’s musical tastes began to change. Big bands were no longer in demand like they had been and earning a paycheck became increasingly difficult. But Ellington continued to use his talents in other projects. In the 1960’s, he teamed up with composer Billy Strayhorn to write music for film, television and theater.

Throughout his lifetime, Ellington’s achievements were recognized with honorary doctorates from Howard and Yale Universities, membership in the American Institute of Arts and Letters and election as the first jazz musician member of the Royal Music Academy in Stockholm.

The French government honored him with their highest award, the Legion of Honor. The government of the United States bestowed upon him the highest civil honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In addition, he gave over 20,000 performances worldwide.

Duke died on May 24, 1974 at the age of 75.


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Last updated: 3/5/2006.

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