The Harlem Renaissance: Duke Ellington

On April 29, 1899, Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington D.C.. Both of his parents were musicians, and so Ellington began his piano studies at the age of seven. Due to his easygoing nature, his friends began calling him “Duke.”

Duke Ellington

Ellington’s early career was defined by his being a painter. He did this to make money, but also involved his music. After he painted a sign for an event, he would ask if they had music. If not, he would offer his services as a pianist.

In 1917, Ellington formed “The Duke’s Serenaders.” The band consisted of Ellington, Otto Hardwick (bass/sax), Arthur Whetsol (trumpet), Elmer Snowden (banjo), and Sonny Greer (drums). They played gigs around the D.C. area. Eventually, Wilber Sweatman offered Greer a job in New York City and Ellington went with him, eventually settling in Harlem.

New York

Ellington became a staple in the Harlem Renaissance. He and Greer left Sweatman, trying to make it on their own. They were met with stiff competition. In 1923, Ellington began a four-year engagement with the Hollywood Club, later known as the Kentucky Club.

In 1926, Ellington met Irving Mills, an agent and publisher who had worked with Hoagy Carmichael, Dorothy Fields, and Harold Arien. He signed with Mills, later recording with multiple record labels.

In 1927, King Oliver turned down a regular booking at the Cotton Club. This opened the door for Ellington as an artist. He increased his band to eleven people, meeting the Club’s requirements. He began a weekly radio broadcast, increasing his exposure, especially to the white and wealthy clients of the Cotton Club.

Duke Ellington

Bubbler Miley was a trumpeter who played with Ellington and his Orchestra for only a short time, but had immense influence. He changed the sound of the orchestra from a sweet dance style to what later became “Jungle Style.” In late 1927, Ellington and his Orchestra recorded “Creole Love Call,” written by Miley, with Adelaide Hall singing. Miley was an alcoholic, so he left the band, but his replacement, Cootie Williams, was heavily influenced by Miley.

As the 1920’s and the Harlem Renaissance continued, Ellington and his Orchestra became famous in Harlem, increasing their exposure to African-American audiences.

After the Renaissance

After the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression hit. It nearly destroyed the recording industry, but due to his newfound notoriety, Ellington was not dropped by the record labels. The Orchestra hired Ivie Anderson as a vocalist; she can be heard on “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing.)”

While the Great Depression gripped the world, Ellington and his Orchestra gained a following internationally. In 1933 and 1934, they visited Europe, finally reaching their European fans. In the later 1930’s, he left Mills and signed with the William Morris Agency. Ellington went on another successful European tour, but was overshadowed by the looming World War.

Post-War Life

After WWII, taste in music began to shift away from groups like Ellington’s and more to artists such as Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford. In 1951, Ellington suffered a major loss when Sonny Greer, Lawrence Brown, and Johnny Hodges left to pursue other endeavors. This period is generally considered Ellington’s career low-point by most, but it did not affect greatly his reputation.

Duke Ellington

In 1956, Ellington played at the Newport Jazz Festival, reviving his career. This concert made international headlines, leading to a Time magazine cover, one of only five jazz musician covers. It would also lead to the best selling LP of his career.

Influence and Awards

Duke Ellington’s greatness is undeniable. He is arguably the greatest jazz musician ever, was a key aspect of the Harlem Renaissance, and was an era-defining musical genius.

In 1965, Ellington was on the short list for the Pulitzer Prize in music, but no award was given that year. In 1999, he posthumously received a special Pulitzer Prize “in recognition of his musical genius.”

Duke Ellington
Ellington receiving his Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Nixon

Ellington received many other accolades: star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (1960), Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1966), Presidential Medal of Freedom (1969), the highest award a civilian can receive in the U.S., an Honorary PhD from the Berklee College of Music (1971),and the Legion of Honor (1973), the highest award a civilian can receive in France.

Percy Grainger, an Australian composer and staunch supporter of Ellington, wrote, “The three greatest composers who ever lived are Bach, Delius, and Duke Ellington. Unfortunately Bach is dead, Delius is very will but we we are happy to have with us today The Duke.”

For those interested in hearing the music of Duke Ellington, the New England Conservatory is putting on a concert on October 15 titled “Reminiscing in Tempo: Music of Duke Ellington.”

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