Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974) was an American composer, pianist and bandleader of jazz orchestras.
His career spanned over 50 years, leading his orchestra from 1923 until he died. Though widely considered to have been a pivotal figure in the history of jazz, Ellington himself embraced the phrase “beyond category” as a “liberating principle”, and referred his music to the more general category of “American Music”, rather than to a musical genre such as “jazz”. Born in Washington, D.C., he was based in New York City from the mid-1920s, and gained a national profile through his orchestra’s appearances at the Cotton Club. In the 1930s they toured in Europe.
Some of the musicians who were members of Ellington’s orchestra, such as saxophonist Johnny Hodges, are still, in their own right, considered to be among the best players in jazz, but it was Ellington who melded them into the best-known jazz orchestral unit in the history of jazz. Several members of the orchestra remained members for several decades. A master at writing miniatures for the three-minute 78 rpm record format, Ellington often composed specifically for the style and skills of his individual musicians, such as “Jeep’s Blues” for Hodges, and “Concerto for Cootie” for trumpeter Cootie Williams, which later became “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me” with Bob Russell’s lyrics.
Often collaborating with others, Ellington originated over a thousand compositions and his extensive oeuvre is the largest recorded personal jazz legacy, with many of his extant works having become standards. Ellington also recorded songs written by his bandsmen, for example Juan Tizol’s “Caravan”, and “Perdido”, which brought Spanish tinge to big-band jazz.
After 1941, Ellington collaborated with composer-arranger-pianist Billy Strayhorn, whom he called his “writing and arranging companion”. With Strayhorn, he composed many extended compositions, or ‘suites’, as well as further shorter pieces. Following an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, Rhode Island in July 1956, he enjoyed a major career revival and, with his orchestra, embarked on world tours. Ellington recorded for most American record companies of his era at some point, and appeared in several films, scoring several, and composed stage musicals.
Due to his inventive use of the orchestra, or big-band, and thanks to his eloquence and charisma, he is generally considered to have elevated the perception of jazz to an art form on a par with other traditional genres of music. His reputation increased after his death and he was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize in 1999.
Gunther Schuller wrote in 1989: “Ellington composed incessantly to the very last days of his life. Music was indeed his mistress; it was his total life and his commitment to it was incomparable and unalterable. In jazz he was a giant among giants. And in twentieth century music, he may yet one day be recognized as one of the half-dozen greatest masters of our time.”