From an early age, the handsome, sharply dressed teenager (that’s where he got the nickname, Duke) was headed for success. At first it was art. He won a poster-design contest and an art scholarship, left school and started a sign-painting business. But it was his natural piano-playing ability that attracted the young women, so Duke Ellington headed in that direction. He developed his keyboard skills by listening to local black ragtime pianists; he composed his first piece, Soda Fountain Rag, around 1915. A successful professional musician by the early 1920s, he left Washington in the spring of 1923 for New York, which was his home base for the rest of his life. Between December 1927 and 1931 his orchestra held forth at Harlem’s Cotton Club, where regular radio broadcasts, together with an active recording schedule, helped him establish a nationwide reputation. Take the “A” Train was his “signature song”.
In such compositions as Black and Tan Fantasy (1927), Mood Indigo (1930),Solitude (1934), and Echoes of Harlem (1935), Ellington emerged as a distinctive composer for his ensemble, employing the rhythms, harmonies, and tone colors of jazz to create pieces that vividly captured aspects of the African-American experience. At the same time, he sought to broaden jazz’s expressive range and formal boundaries in such extended works asReminiscing in Tempo (1935), Black, Brown, and Beige (1943), and Harlem(1951).
An essential feature of Ellington’s composing method was to write with specific instrumentalists in mind, often drawing them into the creative process by building entire pieces out of their musical ideas.
He wrote scores for big band pieces, film scores, operas, ballets, Broadway shows, gospel music, musicals, films, television, and ballet and in the 1960s produced a series of sacred concerts combining his orchestra, choirs, vocalists, and dancers. He would work with each section of his orchestra as an entity unto its own and then bring them together to create the unique sounds such as, Mood Indigo. Over 1,000 musical pieces are credited to the great Duke Ellington. James Lincoln Collier studied the Duke and his Orchestra, comparing Duke Ellington to a “master chef who plans the menus, trains the assistants, supervises them, tastes everything, adjusts the spices … and in the end we credit him with the result.”
Ellington was successful, as few others have been, in reconciling the practical function of a popular entertainer with the artistic aspirations of a serious composer. His rich legacy consists of hundreds of recordings, his many pieces that have entered the standard repertory, and his musical materials now preserved in the Duke Ellington Collection at the Smithsonian Institution. There is a statue of Duke Ellington in New York.