Jazz Musician, Composer, Bandleader. One of the most prolific composer of the 20th Century, he wrote thousands of songs and dozens of works in symphonic form, as well as complete scores for ballet, theater and film. Born in Washington, D.C. he was nicknamed "Duke" because of the flashy way he liked to dress. Ellington studied piano as a child but showed no particular ability until he was enrolled into the Armstrong Manual Training School. He learned to read music, worked on his technique, and began playing at clubs and cafes. In 1917, Ellington formed his first group, the "Duke's Serenaders" and in 1923, they moved to New York City, New York, renamed themselves the "Washingtonians" working off and on four years at the Kentucky Club before moving on to become the house band of Harlem's renowned Cotton Club from 1927 to 1932. From 1924, when he put his name on the band-"Duke Ellington and his Washingtonians"- produced a great quantity of music for exactly fifty years. Ellington spent much of his professional career traveling with his band from one performance to the next, composing wherever he could as he took his music to audiences across the globe. He composed many works specifically to feature the distinctive sounds of such soloists as clarinetist Barney Bigard, Saxophonists Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges and trumpeter Cottie Williams. Ellington's popular favorites included "Mood Indigo," "Solitude," "Sophisticated Lady," "In A Sentimental Mood," "Take the 'A' Train," "Satin Doll," "Black, Brown and Beige," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," and "Come Sunday". The end of the big-band era in the 1940's took its toll on the Ellington orchestra, and as worked dried up Ellington was forced to turn to royalties from his popular songs to keep the band afloat, a situation which was later reversed. He also appeared in numerous films and was the first African-American composer to write a film score (for "Anatomy of a Murder"). When he reached his sixties, an age at which many contemplate retirement, Ellington kept up the relentless schedule of composing, performing, recording and traveling he had followed for over thirty years. During this time he received numerous awards, including the presentation of the keys to the city of Los Angeles, California in 1936, the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP in 1959, The President's Gold Medal by President Lyndon B. Johnson (1966), the Pied Piper Award (1968), the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Richard Nixon (1969), the Legion of Honor by the country of France (the countries highest award), a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (6535 Hollywood Blvd.) and thirteen Grammy Awards. Duke Ellington and his band remained popular until his death in New York City in 1974 at the age of 75. His funeral was held in New York's Cathedral of St. John Divine and was attended by numerous celebrities and by thousands. Since Ellington's death the U.S. Postal Service issued a Commemorative Stamp (April 29, 1986), re-named Calvert Street Bridge in Washington, D.C. after him and the renamed Washington, DC's Western High School to The Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
Bio by: Curtis Jackson