Edward Kennedy “Duke“ Ellington, arguably America’s greatest composer, bandleader and recording artist, was born in Washington, D.C. before the turn of the century on April 29 in 1899.
During his 50-plus year career, Ellington composed thousands of songs for the stage, screen and composition book, according to Biography.com. Some of his notable songs include, “It don’t mean a thing,” “Echoes of Harlem,” “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” and “The Mooche.” Ellington was awarded twelve Grammys from 1959 to 2000, nine of those came during his lifetime.
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His path to musical greatness began at the tender age of seven when he began playing the piano. Inspired by his job as a soda jerk, he wrote his first song, “Soda Mountain Rag,” at age 15. At age 17, he earned a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. But Ellington had a passion for ragtime, so he passed on sharpening his craft in the Ivory Tower in favor of playing in standing-room-only venues nationwide.
WATCH Duke Ellington Perform “If It Don’t Mean A Thing”
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In the 1920s, Ellington performed in Broadway nightclubs as the bandleader of a sextet, a group which in time grew to a 10-piece ensemble. Ellington sought out musicians with unique playing styles, such as Bubber Miley, who used a plunger to make the “wa-wa” sound, and Joe Nanton, who gave the world his trombone “growl.” At various times, his ensemble included the trumpeter Cootie Williams, cornetist Rex Stewart and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. Ellington made hundreds of recordings with his bands, appeared in films and on radio, and toured Europe on two occasions in the 1930s.
Ellington’s fame rose to the rafters in the 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.” A number of his hits were sung by the impressive Ivie Anderson, a favorite female vocalist of Duke’s band.
Ellington continued to perform until shortly before his death at the age of 75. More than 12,000 people attended his funeral. His dying words were reported to have been, “Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered.”
So true, Mr. Ellington, so true.