Duke Ellington

Bandleader + Composer + Pianist
Born Apr 29, 1899

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was an American composer, pianist, and big-band leader. Ellington wrote over 1,000 compositions. In the opinion of Bob Blumenthal of The Boston Globe, "[i i]n the century since his birth, there has been no greater composer, American or otherwise, than Edward Kennedy Ellington. " A major figure in the history of jazz, Ellington's music stretched into various other genres, including blues, gospel, film scores, popular, and classical.… Read More

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Learn about the memorable moments in the evolution of Duke Ellington.


1899 Birth Edward Kennedy Ellington was born on April 29, 1899, to James Edward Ellington and Daisy (Kennedy) Ellington in Washington, D.C. Both his parents were pianists. … Read More


1914 15 Years Old In the summer of 1914, while working as a soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Café, Ellington wrote his first composition, "Soda Fountain Rag" (also known as the "Poodle Dog Rag"). … Read More
1916 17 Years Old …  Ellington started to play gigs in cafés and clubs in and around Washington, D.C. His attachment to music was so strong that in 1916 he turned down an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. … Read More
1917 18 Years Old 1 More Event
Working as a freelance sign-painter from 1917, Ellington began assembling groups to play for dances. … Read More
1918 19 Years Old Ellington married his high school sweetheart, Edna Thompson (d. 1967), on July 2, 1918, when he was 19.


1919 - 1923 2 More Events
1924 25 Years Old 1 More Event
Snowden left the group in early 1924 and Ellington took over as bandleader. … Read More
1925 26 Years Old In 1925, Ellington contributed four songs to Chocolate Kiddies starring Lottie Gee and Adelaide Hall, an all-African-American revue which introduced European audiences to African-American styles and performers. … Read More
1926 27 Years Old In October 1926, Ellington made an agreement with agent-publisher Irving Mills, giving Mills a 45% interest in Ellington's future. … Read More
1927 28 Years Old 1 More Event
In September 1927, King Oliver turned down a regular booking for his group as the house band at Harlem's Cotton Club; the offer passed to Ellington after Jimmy McHugh suggested him and Mills arranged an audition. … Read More


1930 - 1931 2 More Events
1932 33 Years Old 1 More Event
Ellington led the orchestra by conducting from the keyboard using piano cues and visual gestures; very rarely did he conduct using a baton. By 1932 his orchestra consisted of six brass instruments, four reeds, and a four-man rhythm section. … Read More
1933 34 Years Old While the band's United States audience remained mainly African-American in this period, the Ellington orchestra had a significant following overseas, exemplified by the success of their trip to England and Scotland in 1933 and their 1934 visit to the European mainland. … Read More
1936 37 Years Old From 1936, Ellington began to make recordings with smaller groups (sextets, octets, and nonets) drawn from his then-15-man orchestra and he composed pieces intended to feature a specific instrumentalist, as with "Jeep's Blues" for Johnny Hodges, "Yearning for Love" for Lawrence Brown, "Trumpet in Spades" for Rex Stewart, "Echoes of Harlem" for Cootie Williams and "Clarinet Lament" for Barney Bigard.
1937 38 Years Old 1 More Event
In 1937, Ellington returned to the Cotton Club which had relocated to the mid-town Theater District. … Read More


1939 40 Years Old 1 More Event
Billy Strayhorn, originally hired as a lyricist, began his association with Ellington in 1939. … Read More
1940 - 1942 2 More Events
1943 44 Years Old Ellington debuted Black, Brown and Beige in Carnegie Hall on January 23, 1943, beginning an annual series of concerts there over the next four years. While some jazz musicians had played at Carnegie Hall before, none had performed anything as elaborate as Ellington's work. Unfortunately, starting a regular pattern, Ellington's longer works were generally not well received. A partial exception was Jump for Joy, a full-length musical based on themes of African-American identity, debuted on July 10, 1941, at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles. … Read More
1946 47 Years Old Despite this disappointment, a Broadway production of Ellington's Beggar's Holiday, his sole book musical, premiered on December 23, 1946. under the direction of Nicholas Ray. … Read More


1950 51 Years Old 1 More Event
Ellington continued on his own course through these tectonic shifts. While Count Basie was forced to disband his whole ensemble and work as an octet for a time, Ellington was able to tour most of Western Europe between April 6 and June 30, 1950, with the orchestra playing 74 dates over 77 days. … Read More
1955 56 Years Old But Duke merely lifts his finger, three horns make a sound, and I don’t know what it is!" However, by 1955, after three years of recording for Capitol, Ellington lacked a regular recording affiliation.
1956 57 Years Old Ellington's appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956 returned him to wider prominence and introduced him to a new generation of fans. … Read More
1957 58 Years Old In 1957, CBS (Columbia Records' parent corporation) aired a live television production of A Drum Is a Woman, an allegorical suite which received mixed reviews. … Read More


1959 60 Years Old Ellington earned 12 Grammy awards from 1959 to 2000, three of which were posthumous.
1960 61 Years Old Musicians who had previously worked with Ellington returned to the Orchestra as members: Lawrence Brown in 1960 and Cootie Williams in 1962. "The writing and playing of music is a matter of intent. … Read More
1963 64 Years Old Ellington wrote an original score for director Michael Langham's production of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada which opened on July 29, 1963. … Read More
1965 66 Years Old 1 More Event
Ellington was a Pulitzer Prize for Music nominee in 1965 but another nominee was selected. … Read More
1973 74 Years Old 1 More Event
The last three shows Ellington and his orchestra performed were one on March 21, 1973 at Purdue University's Hall of Music and two on March 22, 1973 at the Sturges-Young Auditorium in Sturgis, Michigan.
1974 75 Years Old 1 More Event
Ellington died on May 24, 1974, of complications from lung cancer and pneumonia, a few weeks after his 75th birthday. … Read More
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