Duke Ellington was one of the most important creative forces in the music of the twentieth century. His influence on classical music, popular music, and, of course, jazz, simply cannot be overstated. He was born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington, D.C., on April 29, 1899, into a middle- class black family. His father was a butler in a wealthy household, and he is said to have sometimes worked at White House affairs. Ellington originally had ambitions of becoming a painter, but he became interested in music in his early teens and learned James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout" from a piano roll. Soon he was part of a small jazz band in Washington. In 1923 he moved to New York and early in 1924 he became the leader of his band. Soon he was recording, and in 1927 Ellington's band was hired to play regularly at the Cotton Club, where he stayed for five years. Cotton Club performances were broadcast almost nightly, and by 1930 Ellington and his band were famous. And even as early as this, Ellington was beginning to be recognized as an important serious composer.
In 1931, he was invited to visit the White House, and in 1933 his band made its first European tour, a huge triumph. In the years that followed, Ellington continued to grow musically, and the quality of his band continued to improve, reaching what many consider to be a peak from 1939 through the early 1940s. After the end of World War II, big bands went out of fashion, and, like other bands, Ellington's band suffered financially. Nevertheless, Ellington continued to keep the band together through all the years that followed, subsidizing the band from his royalties as a composer.
Ellington was primarily an instrumental composer, and most of his songs were originally written as instrumental pieces, with words tacked on at a later date. Nevertheless, many of them remain remarkable as songs. Among his best-known songs are "Sophisticated Lady" (1933, lyric by Mitchell Parish), "In A Sentimental Mood" (1935, lyric by Manny Kurtz, with artistically meaningless co-credit given in this, as in many other songs, to publisher Irving Mills), "Prelude To A Kiss" (1938, lyric by Irving Gordon), "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart" (1938, lyric by Henry Nemo), "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)" (1941, lyric by Paul Francis Webster), "Don't Get Around Much Any More" (1942, lyric by Bob Russell), "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" (1943, lyric by Bob Russell), "I Didn't Know About You" (1944, lyric by Bob Russell), and "Satin Doll" (1958, written with Billy Strayhorn, lyric by Johnny Mercer). Duke Ellington died in New York on May 24, 1974. (From Songwriters Hall of Fame)
If you are familiar with the jazz composition, "Take the A Train," then you know something about not only Duke Ellington, but also Billy "Sweet Pea" Strayhorn, its composer. Strayhorn joined Ellington's band in 1939, at the age of twenty-two. Ellington liked what he saw in Billy and took this shy, talented pianist under his wing. Neither one was sure what Strayhorn's function in the band would be, but their musical talents had attracted each other. By the end of the year Strayhorn had become essential to the Duke Ellington Band; arranging, composing, sitting-in at the piano. Billy made a rapid and almost complete assimilation of Ellington's style and technique. It was difficult to discern where one's style ended and the other's began. The results of the Ellington-Strayhorn collaboration brought much joy to the jazz world. Billy was attracted to the piano that his grandmother, Elizabeth Strayhorn owned.
He played it from the moment he was tall enough to reach the keys. Even in those early years, when he played, his family would gather to listen and sing. Billy attended the Pittsburgh Musical institution where he studied classical music. He had more classical training than most jazz musicians of his time. Strayhorn lived a tremendously productive life. He influenced many people that he met, and yet remained very modest and unassuming all the while. Some of Strayhorn's compositions are: "Chelsea Bridge," "Day Dream," "Johnny Come Lately," "Rain-check, and "Clementine." The pieces most frequently played are Ellington's theme song, "Take the A Train" and Ellington's signatory, "Lotus Blossom." In 1946, Strayhorn received the Esquire Silver Award for outstanding arranger. In 1965, the Duke Ellington Jazz Society asked him to present a concert at New York's New School of Social Research. It consisted entirely of his own work performed by him and his quintet. Two years later Billy Strayhorn died of cancer. Duke Ellington's response to his death was to record what the critics cite as one of his greatest works, a collection titled "And His Mother Called Him Bill," consisting entirely of Billy's compositions. Later, a scholarship fund was established for him by Ellington and the Julliard School of Music. (From Songwriters Hall of Fame)