Edward Kennedy Ellington, aka Duke Ellington, wrote over 1,000 compositions in his lifetime as a Jazz band-leader, composer and pianist, including Jazz standards, film scores and classical works. His middle name is his mother's maiden name, taken as a tribute to her memory and inherited by his only son, Mercer Kennedy Ellington.
Ellington's father worked as a butler at the White House.
Despite the fact that both of his parents were amateur pianists, Ellington preferred baseball to piano lessons when he was a child.
Ellington's first composition was "Soda Fountain Rag," written when he worked at a soda bar as a teenager.
In 1917, Ellington dropped out of high-school to pursue his music. 1917 was a significant year for Jazz, seeing the first official Jazz recording in music history. This first ever Jazz single was called "Livery Stable Blues," by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. This white group were credited for many years as the originators of the genre, something which is now known to be untrue.
Instead of using the term "jazz," Ellington preferred to call his genre Negro Music and American Music, possibly because the term Jazz was coined in the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and used in the white press. Later he was quoted saying, "By and large, Jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn't want your daughter to associate with."
From 1927 to 1930, Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra played the infamous Cotton Club in Harlem, New York. This notorious club, owned and run from his jail cell by the gangster Owney Madden, was a great place to be seen and heard by New York's finest during the prohibition era. True to form, within the first year Ellington had his first hit record alongside the Jazz singer Adelaide Hall, called "Creole Love Call," to international acclaim.
The famous Bebop musician Miles Davis
is quoted as expressing Ellington's musical importance, saying, "At least one day out of the year, all musicians should just put their instruments down, and give thanks to Duke Ellington." When Ellington described Davis' early style of jazz, he said that "Playing 'bop' [bebop] is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing."
Duke Ellington was religious from childhood, and believed that he led a blessed life guided by some holy force to fame and fortune. In the last decade of life, his religiosity was given musical expression in the three Sacred Concerts, which he said was "the most important thing I have ever done." The music for these concerts shows a curious blend of traditional religious hymn tradition and Jazz styles.
The British composer and conductor Constant Lambert called Ellington the "first Negro composer of significance."
After quitting the Cotton Club, in order to escape the Great Depression soon to ravage the USA, Ellington and his band embarked on a world-tour with his band that would last nearly half a century.
In a strange tradition, at the end of his concerts Ellington would say to the crowd "We love you madly."