Duke Ellington

Pianist, Conductor & Songwriter

“There are two kinds of worries ‐ those you can do something about and those you can't. Don't spend any time on the latter.”

An originator of big-band jazz, Duke Ellington was an American composer, pianist and bandleader who composed thousands of scores over his 50-year career.

Early Years

Born on April 29, 1899, Duke Ellington was raised by two talented, musical parents in a middle-class neighborhood of Washington DC. At the age of 7, he began studying piano and earned the nickname “Duke” for his gentlemanly ways.

Duke Ellington

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.


Professional Life

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.

Duke Ellington

It was Ellington's sense of musical drama that made him stand out. His blend of melodies, rhythms and subtle sonic movements gave audiences a new experience–complex yet accessible jazz that made the heart swing. Ellington's autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, was published in 1973. Ellington earned 12 Grammy awards from 1959 to 2000, nine while he was alive.


Personal Life

At the age of 19, Ellington married Edna Thompson, who had been his girlfriend since high school, and soon after their marriage, she gave birth to their only child, Mercer Kennedy Ellington.

On May 24, 1974, at the age of 75, Duke Ellington died of 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. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City.

Quick Facts

Birth Date:
April 29, 1899

Death Date:
May 24, 1974


  • Since the mid-1920s, Ellington settled in New York City where he earned a national attention for his orchestras had frequent appearance in Harlem. They played at the Cotton Club. He and his orchestra went to Europe to do various tours in 1930.
  • Johnny Hodges was a saxophonist who was a member of Ellington’s orchestra. Hodges is known as one of the best jazz musicians.
  • Ellington was recognized as a wonderful music composer. He had written at least one thousand compositions. He also collaborated with other musicians to create the compositions.
  • Ellington and his band had a career revival after they performed at Newport Jazz Festival in July 1956.
  • The parents of Ellington were pianists. They were Daisy and James Edward Ellington. James liked to play the operatic arias. On the other hand, Daisy preferred to play the parlor songs. Marietta Clinkscales was the piano teacher of Ellington when he was seven.
  • Duke Ellington
  • Duke Ellington
  • Duke Ellington

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