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The Black Renaissance in Washington, DC, 1910-1937
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Duke Ellington
Composer, Pianist and Jazz Bandleader
April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974

Edward Kennedy Ellington, born into the black middle class of Washington, D. C. on April 29, 1899, was the son of James Edward Ellington and Daisy Kennedy Ellington. James Ellington made blueprints for the United States Navy and also worked as a White House butler for additional income.

Because both of this parents played piano, Ellington was exposed to music at an early age. He began playing piano at age seven, performing professionally at age seventeen and formed a band at age 19. He was awarded a scholarship to study commercial art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, but he dropped out in his senior year to seek his fortune as a piano player in a local dance band.

In 1923 he became a member of Elmer Snowden’s band, The Washingtonians. They began playing in local clubs and for parties in Washington, D. C. Ellington soon became leader of the band. The band moved to New York City where they began performing at the Kentucky Club. Later, they secured a three-year engagement at Harlem’s Cotton Club.

In 1924, Ellington began to record many of his compositions and the band’s reputation grew during the 1930s and 1940s. Some of his recordings during this period included "Mood Indigo", "It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing", "Sophisticated Lady", "Harlem Air-Shaft", and "Ko-Ko."

Ellington was able to maintain his identifiable sound because many of his key musicians remained with him for several decades. Some of his long term band members included saxophonists "Toby" Otto Hardwick, Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves; trumpeters Artie Whetsol, Bubber Miley and Cootie Williams; drummer "Sonny" William Greer and, pianist/composer Billy Strayhorn who wrote the band’s theme, "Take the ‘A’ Train".

Ellington was a multi-talented musician who wrote musical revues such as "Chocolate Kiddies" and Broadway musicals such as Florenz Ziegfield’s "Show Girl" in the 1920s and 1930s. He also appeared in and/or wrote scores for films from the 1930s to the 1960s. Some of these films included "Check and Double Check", "Murder at the Vanities", "Paris Blues", and "Assault on a Queen."

In the 1940s, he began composing more complex works for concert presentation which included "Creole Rhapsody", "Liberian Suite" and "Black, Brown and Beige". His first concert, "Black, Brown, and Beige" symphonically represented the story of blacks in the United States. "Black" presented the people at work and at prayer, "brown" celebrated black soldiers who fought in American wars, and "beige" depicted African American music of Harlem. In 1943, he helped to establish an annual jazz concert review at New York City’s Carnegie Hall that lasted until 1955.

Toward the end of his life, Ellington composed religious music, which included two jazz-style sacred concerts. The first concert included "In the Beginning God" in 1965 at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco. In 1968, he performed at New York City’s Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. He also performed sacred concerts in Paris, Barcelona and London. During his lifetime, Ellington created over 2,000 pieces of music. He died on May 24, 1974, in New York City of lung cancer.

Although he was considered a jazz artist, he always tried to distance himself from jazz. He referred to his music as "Negro folk music", "American idiom" or "music of freedom of expression". In 1969, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1999, twenty-five years after his death, when he would have been 100 years old, Ellington received the Pulitzer Prize in recognition of his musical genius. A permanent exhibit entitled, "Duke Ellington: American Musician," was installed at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. in the late 1980s.


1959 - Spingarn Medal (NAACP)
1961 - Academy Award nomination for score of "Paris Blues"
1966 - Lifetime Achievement Award (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences)


Jet, May 3, 1999, v95, p. 29

Economist (US), April 17, 1999, v351, p.87

Murray, Albert, Nation, February 22, 1999, v268, p.23

Bigelow, Barbara Carlisle, editor, Contemporary Black Biography, Gale Research, Inc., Detroit, 1994

Nagel, Carol DeKane, African American Biography, Gale Research, Inc., 1994

Doris Greer
(formerly) Senior Services Outreach Manager
Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

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The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C., 1920-1930s
http://www.dclibrary.org/blkren/ | last updated June 20, 2003