Duke Ellington

Selection from "Take the A Train"

Duke Ellington

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, DC in 1899. His mother, Daisy Kennedy Ellington, recognized her son's talents when he was a child. Daisy's husband worked as a blueprint maker for the U.S. Navy. Occasionally he worked as a butler, sometimes at the White House. Neither parent could have imagined that their son would be an honored guest and performer at the White House before four different presidents. In 1969, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his accomplishments as a musician and conductor.

Nicknamed "Duke" by his boyhood friends because of his love for dressing in fine clothes, Ellington displayed talent as a pianist when he was quite young. His piano teacher tried to make Duke learn the piano in a conventional way. Duke did learn, but he always added creativity and expression to his playing.

Ellington strove for excellence and elegance in everything he did. When still in high school, he designed the winning poster for a contest sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He graduated from high school in 1917 and was offered a scholarship from the Pratt Institute of Applied Art in New York City, but music was his first love, and he followed his instincts.

Ellington struck out on his own. He organized a band in Washington and began to play regular engagements. His band went to New York City, where they made their first recordings. When Duke Ellington and his Washingtonians played at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, they were on their way to success.

The band played in movies during the 1930s. They also toured Europe for extended periods of time. Each musician had his own style, but they all played together under Ellington's leadership to create wonderful sounds.

He and his band performed in all the major concert halls in the United States and Europe. Liberia, in West Africa, commissioned Ellington to write music to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Another West African nation, Togo, was honored by Ellington's work entitled "Togo Brava." Millions of fans around the world loved his music.

Although the 1950s were not popular years for bands, Ellington kept his band together. He stayed in business while he composed other types of music. He wrote pieces for his band, music for Broadway shows and ballets, jazz compositions, concert hall music, and sacred music. Altogether he wrote more than 6,000 pieces of music.

"He has made us all happier and richer by having lived among us. He will not be easily replaced on this earth." The great African-American singer Sarah Vaughan spoke these words of Duke Ellington after his death in 1974. Fans of Duke Ellington know they will never need to replace this great man - his creative spirit is still very much alive in his music.

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