pianist, band leader
any one artist can be said to represent jazz in the twentieth century,
Ellington makes the strongest claim, having made telling
(and popular) contributions in every era from the beginnings
of popular jazz through the popular craze for swing
music. His background was that of ragtime, and his
first inclination would have been, like Fletcher
Henderson, to rival the popular white
dance bands of his youth; but to that he quickly added the black jazz
sounds of two early band members, Bubber Miley (trumpet)
and Trick San Nanton (trombome), with their use of voice-like effects
in their playing: Black and Tan Fantasy is an early essay in
this assembled collage of styles.
Like all the early jazz musicians, Ellington 'learnt on the hoof',
and he had, in the shape of his own band, the perfect vehicle for
it. Ellington took in all influences as a composer - popular songs,
the blues, ballads, instrumental pieces, and his tally of over 2000
known compositions is testimony to his receptive ear and fertile imagination.
Perhaps the most striking feature of both
his band leading and compositional style, was his reliance on his
soloists. Most of his compositions were written for and
featured one particular soloist, and these compositions would reflect
both the instrument and the performing personality of its player,
"cannibalizing his musicians' very souls", as Brian Priestley put
it. Charles Mingus, too, developed this
symbiotic relationship with his players.
Ellington was a sophisticated composer and arranger: his
use of timbral colours and tonal effects was rivalled rarely in the
history of jazz, and he had a habit of discovering unusual
and effective voicings. And Ellington, like Gil
Evans, was discriminating when it came to welding together the
two often juxtaposed worlds of composition and improvisation: as
his appetite for larger scale composition grew, its jazz feel and
its improvisatory element were carefully nurtured and never forgotten.
Above all, like all the truly great jazz composers, he was never merely
the 'tunesmith': a sense of form and structure,
a natural compositional gift for Ellington, coloured all his work.
Piano playing was of secondary importance to Ellington, although he
had a distinctive tone: he rarely soloed or went beyond his role as
Edward Kennedy Ellington is born in Washington. He starts to play
ragtime piano aged seven, and receives early encouragement from
the drummer Sonny Greer.
The Duke has a residency at the Cotton
Club in Harlem, and regular broadcasts earns his band a national
reputation, featuring his 'jungle style' - the melee
of the smoother sonorities of the band's wind section and the more
piercing sound of its brass players. The band is now twelve players,
including Barney Bigard on clarinet, Johnny
Hodges and Harry Carney on saxophone, and Cootie Williams on
trumpet. His composition Mood Indigo, 1930, is a hit worldwide,
and by 1931 Ellington, finding his feet
as a composer, starts to write extended compositions,
including Creole Rhapsody and Diminuendo in Blue/Crescendo
After a lull in popularity, Ellington's appearance at the Newport
Jazz Festival reasserts his authority on the jazz, and wider musical,
Ellington has some success writing film scores (such as Anatomy
Of A Murder in 1959) and TV theme music. He tours abroad frequently,
annually in Europe but also worldwide, including the Soviet Union
in 1971. Throughout the 1960s he composes 'sacred' concert pieces,
and these are performed in cathedral venues.
Ellington travels to New York with Greer and starts to make his way
in the music world. By 1924 Duke Ellington and His Washingtonians
is established, and night club success allows the Duke to enlarge
his ensemble of six to ten.
By the late-1930s Ellington's band numbers 14 or 15 players:- 6 or
7 brass, 4 reeds, and a rhythm section of 4. In 1933 and 1939 the
band tours Europe, and by the end of the decade he
is joined by Ben Webster,
Jimmy Blanton and,
as arranger, composer and occasional pianist, Billy Strayhorn.
Between 1943 and 1948 Ellington's orchestra has a series of annual
concerts at the Carnegie Hall, but by the late-1940s and early-1950s,
many stalwart and key players, players for whom he has always written,
such as Johnny Hodges and Lawrence Brown,
leave the band. The 1950s see constant personnel changes: Ray Nance,
Shorty Baker and Clark Terry (trumpets) and Paul Gonsalves (saxophone)
become key players.
With the onset of the LP, more large scale
compositions and groups of pieces assembled as suites are featured,
such as Black, Brown and Beige and the Liberian Suite
and Such Sweet Thunder.