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Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington was the most important composer in the history of jazz as well as being a bandleader who held his large group togethercontinuously for almost 50 years. The two aspects of his career were related; Ellington used his band as a musical laboratory for his newcompositions and shaped his writing specifically to showcase the talents of his bandmembers, many of whom remained with him for long periods.Ellington also wrote film scores and stage musicals, and several of his instrumental works were adapted into songs that became standards. Inaddition to touring year in and year out, ...read more

Duke Ellington was the most important composer in the history of jazz as well as being a bandleader who held his large group togethercontinuously for almost 50 years. The two aspects of his career were related; Ellington used his band as a musical laboratory for his newcompositions and shaped his writing specifically to showcase the talents of his bandmembers, many of whom remained with him for long periods.Ellington also wrote film scores and stage musicals, and several of his instrumental works were adapted into songs that became standards. Inaddition to touring year in and year out, he recorded extensively, resulting in a gigantic body of work that was still being assessed a quartercentury after his death. Ellington was the son of a White House butler, James Edward Ellington, and thus grew up in comfortable surroundings. He began piano lessons atage seven and was writing music by his teens. He dropped out of high school in his junior year in 1917 to pursue a career in music. At first, hebooked and performed in bands in the Washington, D.C., area, but in September 1923 the Washingtonians, a five-piece group of which he was amember, moved permanently to New York, where they gained a residency in the Times Square venue The Hollywood Club (later The KentuckyClub). They made their first recordings in November 1924, and cut tunes for different record companies under a variety of pseudonyms, so thatseveral current major labels, notably Sony, Universal, and BMG, now have extensive holdings of their work from the period in their archives,which are reissued periodically. The group gradually increased in size and came under Ellington's leadership. They played in what was called "jungle" style, their slyarrangements often highlighted by the muted growling sound of trumpeter James "Bubber" Miley. A good example of this is Ellington's firstsignature song, "East St. Louis Toodle-oo," which the band first recorded for Vocalion Records in November 1926, and which became their firstchart single in a re-recorded version for Columbia in July 1927. The Ellington band moved uptown to The Cotton Club in Harlem on December 4, 1927. Their residency at the famed club, which lasted more thanthree years, made Ellington a nationally known musician due to radio broadcasts that emanated from the bandstand. In 1928, he had two two-sided hits: "Black and Tan Fantasy"/"Creole Love Call" on Victor (now BMG) and "Doin' the New Low Down"/"Diga Diga Doo" on OKeh (nowSony), released as by the Harlem Footwarmers. "The Mooche" on OKeh peaked in the charts at the start of 1929. While maintaining his job at The Cotton Club, Ellington took his band downtown to play in the Broadway musical Show Girl, featuring the music ofGeorge Gershwin, in the summer of 1929. The following summer, the band took a leave of absence to head out to California and appear in thefilm Check and Double Check. From the score, "Three Little Words," with vocals by the Rhythm Boys featuring Bing Crosby, became a numberone hit on Victor in November 1930; its flip side, "Ring Dem Bells," also reached the charts. The Ellington band left The Cotton Club in February 1931 to begin a tour that, in a sense, would not end until the leader's death 43 years later. Atthe same time, Ellington scored a Top Five hit with an instrumental version of one of his standards, "Mood Indigo" released on Victor. Therecording was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. As "the Jungle Band," the Ellington Orchestra charted on Brunswick later in 1931 with"Rockin' in Rhythm" and with the lengthy composition "Creole Rhapsody," pressed on both sides of a 78 single, an indication that Ellington's goalsas a writer were beginning to extend beyond brief works. (A second version of the piece was a chart entry on Victor in March 1932.) "LimehouseBlues" was a chart entry on Victor in August 1931, then in the winter of 1932, Ellington scored a Top Ten hit on Brunswick with one of his best-remembered songs, "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," featuring the vocals of Ivie Anderson. This was still more than threeyears before the official birth of the swing era, and Ellington helped give the period its name. Ellington's next major hit was another signaturesong for him, "Sophisticated Lady." His instrumental version became a Top Five hit in the spring of 1933, with its flip side, a treatment of "StormyWeather," also making the Top Five. The Ellington Orchestra made another feature film, Murder at the Vanities, in the spring of 1934. Their instrumental rendition of "Cocktails forTwo" from the score hit number one on Victor in May, and they hit the Top Five with both sides of the Brunswick release "Moon Glow"/"Solitude"that fall. The band also appeared in the Mae West film Belle of the Nineties and played on the soundtrack of Many Happy Returns. Later in thefall, the band was back in the Top Ten with "Saddest Tale," and they had two Top Ten hits in 1935, "Merry-Go-Round" and "Accent on Youth."While the latter was scoring in the hit parade in September, Ellington recorded another of his extended compositions, "Reminiscing in Tempo,"which took up both sides of two 78s. Even as he became more ambitious, however, he was rarely out of the hit parade, scoring another Top Tenhit, "Cotton," in the fall of 1935, and two more, "Love Is Like a Cigarette" and "Oh Babe! Maybe Someday," in 1936. The band returned toHollywood in 1936 and recorded music for the Marx Brothers' film A Day at the Races and for Hit Parade of 1937. Meanwhile, they were scoringTop Ten hits with "Scattin' at the Kit-Kat" and the swing standard "Caravan," co-written by valve trombonist Juan Tizol, and Ellington wascontinuing to pen extended instrumental works such as "Diminuendo in Blue" and "Crescendo in Blue." "If You Were in My Place (What Would YouDo?)," a vocal number featuring Ivie Anderson, was a Top Ten hit in the spring of 1938, and Ellington scored his third number one hit in April withan instrumental version of another standard, "I Let a Song Go out of My Heart." In the fall, he was back in the Top Ten with a version of theBritish show tune "Lambeth Walk." The Ellington band underwent several notable changes at the end of the 1930s. After several years recording more or less regularly forBrunswick, Ellington moved to Victor. In early 1939 Billy Strayhorn, a young composer, arranger, and pianist, joined the organization. He did notusually perform with the orchestra, but he became Ellington's composition partner to the extent that soon it was impossible to tell whereEllington's writing left off and Strayhorn's began. Two key personnel changes strengthened the outfit with the acquisition of bassist JimmyBlanton in September and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster in December. Their impact on Ellington's sound was so profound that their relativelybrief tenure has been dubbed "the Blanton-Webster Band" by jazz fans. These various changes were encapsulated by the Victor release ofStrayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train," a swing era standard, in the summer of 1941. The recording was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. That same summer, Ellington was in Los Angeles, where his stage musical, Jump for Joy, opened on July 10 and ran for 101 performances.Unfortunately, the show never went to Broadway, but among its songs was "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," another standard. The U.S.entry into World War II in December 1941 and the onset of the recording ban called by the American Federation of Musicians in August 1942slowed the Ellington band's momentum. Unable to record and with touring curtailed, Ellington found an opportunity to return to extendedcomposition with the first of a series of annual recitals at Carnegie Hall on January 23, 1943, at which he premiered "Black, Brown and Beige."And he returned to the movies, appearing in Cabin in the Sky and Reveille with Beverly. Meanwhile, the record labels, stymied for hits, beganlooking into their artists' back catalogs. Lyricist Bob Russell took Ellington's 1940 composition "Never No Lament" and set a lyric to it, creating"Don't Get Around Much Anymore." The Ink Spots scored with a vocal version (recorded a cappella), and Ellington's three-year-old instrumentalrecording was also a hit, reaching the pop Top Ten and number one on the recently instituted R&B charts. Russell repeated his magic withanother 1940 Ellington instrumental, "Concerto for Cootie" (a showcase for trumpeter Cootie Williams), creating "Do Nothin' Till You Hear fromMe." Nearly four years after it was recorded, the retitled recording hit the pop Top Ten and number one on the R&B charts for Ellington in early1944, while newly recorded vocal cover versions also scored. Ellington's vintage recordings became ubiquitous on the top of the R&B chartsduring 1943-1944; he also hit number one with "A Slip of the Lip (Can Sink a Ship)," "Sentimental Lady," and "Main Stem." With the end of therecording ban in November 1944, Ellington was able to record a song he had composed with his saxophonist, Johnny Hodges, set to a lyric byDon George and Harry James, "I'm Beginning to See the Light." The James recording went to number one in April 1945, but Ellington's recordingwas also a Top Ten hit. With the end of the war, Ellington's period as a major commercial force on records largely came to an end, but unlike other big bandleaders, whodisbanded as the swing era passed, Ellington, who predated the era, simply went on touring, augmenting his diminished road revenues with hissongwriting royalties to keep his band afloat. In a musical climate in which jazz was veering away from popular music and toward bebop, andpopular music was being dominated by singers, the Ellington band no longer had a place at the top of the business; but it kept working. AndEllington kept trying more extended pieces. In 1946, he teamed with lyricist John Latouche to write the music for the Broadway musical Beggar'sHoliday, which opened on December 26 and ran 108 performances. And he wrote his first full-length background score for a feature film with1950's The Asphalt Jungle. The first half of the 1950s was a difficult period for Ellington, who suffered many personnel defections. (Some of those musicians returned later.)But the band made a major comeback at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956, when they kicked into a version of "Dimuendo and Crescendoin Blue" that found saxophonist Paul Gonsalves taking a long, memorable solo. Ellington appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and he signeda new contract with Columbia Records, which released Ellington at Newport, the best-selling album of his career. Freed of the necessity of writinghits and spurred by the increased time available on the LP record, Ellington concentrated more on extended compositions for the rest of hiscareer. His comeback as a live performer led to increased opportunities to tour, and in the fall of 1958 he undertook his first full-scale tour ofEurope. For the rest of his life, he would be a busy world traveler. Ellington appeared in and scored the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder, and its soundtrack won him three of the newly instituted Grammy Awards,for best performance by a dance band, best musical composition of the year, and best soundtrack. He was nominated for an Academy Award forhis next score, Paris Blues (1961). In August 1963, his stage work My People, a cavalcade of African-American history, was mounted in Chicagoas part of the Century of Negro Progress Exposition. Meanwhile, of course, he continued to lead his band in recordings and live performances. He switched from Columbia to Frank Sinatra's Repriselabel (purchased by Warner Bros. Records) and made some pop-oriented records that dismayed his fans but indicated he had not given up onbroad commercial aspirations. Nor had he abandoned his artistic aspirations, as the first of his series of sacred concerts, performed at GraceCathedral in San Francisco on September 16, 1965, indicated. And he still longed for a stage success, turning once again to Broadway with themusical Pousse-CafĂ©, which opened on March 18, 1966, but closed within days. Three months later, the Sinatra film Assault on a Queen, with anEllington score, opened in movie houses around the country. (His final film score, for Change of Mind, appeared in 1969.) Ellington became a Grammy favorite in his later years. He won a 1966 Grammy for best original jazz composition for "In the Beginning, God,"part of his sacred concerts. His 1967 album Far East Suite, inspired by a tour of the Middle and Far East, won the best instrumental jazzperformance Grammy that year, and he took home his sixth Grammy in the same category in 1969 for And His Mother Called Him Bill, a tribute toStrayhorn, who had died in 1967. "New Orleans Suite" earned another Grammy in the category in 1971, as did "Togo Brava Suite" in 1972, andthe posthumous The Ellington Suites in 1976. Ellington continued to perform regularly until he was overcome by illness in the spring of 1974, succumbing to lung cancer and pneumonia. Hisdeath did not end the band, which was taken over by his son Mercer, who led it until his own death in 1996, and then by a grandson. Meanwhile,Ellington finally enjoyed the stage hit he had always wanted when the revue Sophisticated Ladies, featuring his music, opened on Broadway onMarch 1, 1981, and ran 767 performances. The many celebrations of the Ellington centenary in 1999 demonstrated that he continued to be regarded as the major composer of jazz. If thatseemed something of an anomaly in a musical style that emphasizes spontaneous improvisation over written composition, Ellington was talentedenough to overcome the oddity. He wrote primarily for his band, allowing his veteran players room to solo within his compositions, and as aresult created a body of work that seemed likely to help jazz enter the academic and institutional realms, which was very much its direction atthe end of the 20th century. In that sense, he foreshadowed the future of jazz and could lay claim to being one of its most influentialpractitioners. « hide

Similar Bands: Herbie Nichols, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus

LPs
The Feeling of Jazz
1988

4
1 Votes
Studio Sessions, New York 1963
1987

Studio Sessions New York & Chicago, 1965-66, 1971
1987

Studio Sessions 1957 & 1962
1987

Studio Sessions, New York 1962
1987

The Suites, New York 1968 & 1970
1987

The Intimacy of the Blues
1986

Featuring Paul Gonsalves
1985

Duke 56/62 Vol. 1
1984

Duke 56/62 Vol. 2
1984

Duke 56/62 Vol. 3
1984

The Girl's Suite and The Perfume Suite
1982

Unknown Session
1979

The Intimate Ellington
1977

Duke Ellington's Jazz Violin Session
1976

Up in Duke's Workshop
1976

The Ellington Suites
1976

The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse
1975

4.5
6 Votes
Recollections of the Big Band Era
1974

1
1 Votes
The Pianist
1974

2
1 Votes
Duke's Big 4
1974

This One's for Blanton
1972

Latin American Suite
1972

4.3
3 Votes
New Orleans Suite
1970

3.3
2 Votes
Orchestral Works
1970

Collages
1969

4
2 Votes
...and His Mother Called Him Bill
1968

The Far East Suite
1967

4.3
54 Votes
The Popular Duke Ellington
1967

4
1 Votes
Duke Ellington Plays Mary Poppins
1965

4
1 Votes
Ellington '65
1965

4
1 Votes
The Symphonic Ellington
1964

1.5
1 Votes
Jazz Group 1964
1964

Afro-Bossa
1963

My People
1963

Will Big Bands Ever Come Back?
1963

Money Jungle
1962

4.1
65 Votes
Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins
1962

4.6
10 Votes
All American In Jazz
1962

Midnight In Paris
1962

Paris Blues
1961

Piano in the Foreground
1961

Piano in the Background
1960

3.5
1 Votes
The Nutcracker Suite
1960

4.6
4 Votes
Swinging Suites by Edward E. & Edward G.
1960

Blues In Orbit
1960

4
1 Votes
Back to Back
1959

3.5
1 Votes
Side by Side
1959

3.5
1 Votes
Jazz Party
1959

4
3 Votes
Black Brown And Beige
1958

Such Sweet Thunder
1957

4.3
8 Votes
The Duke Plays Ellington
1953

4
1 Votes
Ellington Uptown
1951

4.2
31 Votes
Masterpieces By Ellington
1950

4.2
29 Votes
Liberian Suite
1949

4.8
5 Votes
Live Albums
Ellington at Newport 1956 (Complete)
2009

3.8
10 Votes
The Unheard Recordings, Pt. 2: Live at Monterey 60
1996

The Unheard Recordings, Pt. 1: Live at Monterey 60
1996

Live at the Whitney
1995

Hot Summer Dance
1991

Third Sacred Concert
1975

Eastbourne Performance
1975

The Great Paris Concert
1973

Togo Brava Suite
1971

Second Sacred Concert
1968

A Concert of Sacred Music
1966

Ellington At Newport
1956

4.3
43 Votes
Compilations
The Blanton - Webster Band
1986

5
1 Votes

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