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  • Hank Orenstein

Our April 29th New Yorker Birthday is Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974).

Duke is the most prolific composer in the history of jazz music having written well over 1,000 songs. A pianist and bandleader, he was one of the originators of big-band jazz and his musical styles were inventive and expansive, with varied rhythms and melodies that also incorporated elements of Latin and African beats, as well as classical music. It is said that his compositions transcended jazz. He played over 20,000 performances during his career including in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. He received 13 Grammy awards and in 1966 was awarded the President’s Gold Medal by Lyndon Johnson.


Duke Ellington called Harlem and Upper Manhattan home for nearly 50 years. From 1939 to 1961 he resided in Sugar Hill at 935 St. Nicholas Avenue near 157th Street. There’s a plaque on the building. He resided at 333 Riverside Drive from 1961 until his death in 1974. He had purchased adjoining townhouses at 335 and 333 Riverside Drive on Riverside Drive between 105th and 106th Streets for the headquarters of Tempo Records, managed by his sister Ruth who also resided at 335, with his son Mercer living at 333 Riverside Drive.

Duke was the center of the Harlem Renaissance which began to flourish in the 1920’s. His orchestra was based at The Cotton Club at the original location at Lenox Avenue and 142nd Street and by the 1930’s he and his band began touring extensively.


EARLY LIFE AND CAREER


Born on April 29, 1899, Ellington was raised by two talented, musical parents in a middle-class neighborhood of Washington, D.C. His father James Edward Ellington was a White House butler. At the age of seven, he began studying piano and earned the nickname "Duke" for his gentlemanly ways. Inspired by his job as a soda jerk, he wrote his first composition, "Soda Fountain Rag," at the age of 15. Despite being awarded an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, Ellington followed his passion for ragtime and began to play professionally at age 17. He played gigs in an around Washington D.C. until 1923.


In September 1923 the Washingtonians, a five-piece group of which Duke was a member,

moved permanently to New York, where they gained a residency in the Times Square venue The Hollywood Club (later The Kentucky Club). They made their first recordings in November 1924, and cut tunes for different record companies under a variety of pseudonyms, so that several 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.


Ellington took up residence in Harlem where new dance crazes such as the Charleston as well as African-American musical theater, including Eubie Blake's Shuffle Along. He and his fellow musicians found an emerging jazz scene that was highly competitive with difficult inroad. They hustled pool by day and played whatever gigs they could find. The young band met stride pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith, who introduced them to the scene and gave them some money. They played at rent-house parties for income. After a few months, the young musicians returned to Washington, D.C., feeling discouraged.


In September 1927, King Oliver turned down a regular booking for his group as the house band at Harlem's Cotton Club; the offer passed to Ellington after Jimmy McHugh suggested him and Mills arranged an audition. Ellington had to increase from a six to eleven-piece group to meet the requirements of the Cotton Club's management for the audition, and the engagement finally began on December 4. With a weekly radio broadcast, the Cotton Club's exclusively white and wealthy clientele poured in nightly to see them. At the Cotton Club, Ellington's group performed all the music for the revues, which mixed comedy, dance numbers, vaudeville, burlesque, music, and illicit alcohol. Weekly radio broadcasts from the club gave Ellington national exposure.


The band toured widely during the 1930’s, also appearing in films and recorded movie scores. Ellington's fame perhaps reached its peak in the mid-1930’s and 1940s when he composed several masterworks, including "Concerto for Cootie," "Cotton Tail" and "Ko-Ko." Some of his most popular songs included "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing," "Sophisticated Lady," "Prelude to a Kiss," "Solitude" and "Satin Doll." Several his hits were sung by the impressive Ivie Anderson, a favorite female vocalist of Ellington's band.


Perhaps Ellington's most famous jazz tune was "Take the A Train," which was composed by Billy Strayhorn and recorded in 1941. "Take the A Train," referring to the subway line in New York City – the way home from downtown to Sugar Hill in Harlem, became the Duke’s signature tune.

Amid the decline in the popularity of Jazz, in the 1950's Duke gave a seminal performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. One of Ellington's most fascinating later efforts is Money Jungle (United Artists, 1962), a one-off trio collaboration with musical descendants Charles Mingus (bass) and Max Roach (drums). The title track captures Ellington in a dissonant mood as "the poor man's Bud Powell."


Ellington continued to perform regularly until he was overcome by illness in the spring of 1974, succumbing to lung cancer and pneumonia. His last words were, "Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered." More than 12,000 people attended his funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, thought to be the most single largest attendance in the history of the 130-year old building. , Ella Fitzgerald summed up the occasion, "It's a very sad day...A genius has passed.” He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City.


His death 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 on March 1, 1981, and ran 767 performances. Ellington's autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, was published in 1973.


In 1999, Ellington was awarded a special Pulizter Prize on the 100th anniversary of his birth “in recognition of his musical genius, which evoked aesthetically the principles of democracy through the medium of jazz and thus made an indelible contribution to art and culture.”


Should you have the occasion to visit the National Jazz Museum in Harlem at 58 West 129th Street, right inside the entrance is a 1917 white grand piano that belonged to Duke Ellington.

(sources: wikipedia; pulitzer.org; jazzmuseuminharlem.org; daytonianinmanhattan.blogspot.com; dukeellington.com; biography.com; songfacts.com)

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