"Duke" Ellington
Duke Ellington - publicity.JPG
circa 1940s
Background information
Birth name Edward Kennedy Ellington


[create] Documentation
-29)29, 1899
Washington D.C., United States

24, 1974(1974-5

[create] Documentation
-24) (aged 75
[create] Documentation
New York City, United States
Genres Orchestral jazz, swing, big band
Occupation(s) Bandleader, pianist, composer
Instruments Piano
Years active 1914–1974
Website Script error
Script error

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974)[1] was an American composer, pianist, and big-band leader. Ellington wrote over 1,000 compositions. In the opinion of Bob Blumenthal of The Boston Globe, "[i]n the century since his birth, there has been no greater composer, American or otherwise, than Edward Kennedy Ellington."[2] A major figure in the history of jazz, Ellington's music stretched into various other genres, including blues, gospel, film scores, popular, and classical. His career spanned more than 50 years and included leading his orchestra, composing an inexhaustible songbook, scoring for movies, composing stage musicals, and world tours. Several of his instrumental works were adapted into songs that became standards. Due to his inventive use of the orchestra, or big band, and thanks to his eloquence and extraordinary charisma, he is generally considered to have elevated the perception of jazz to an art form on a par with other traditional genres of music. His reputation increased after his death and the Pulitzer Prize Board bestowed on him a special posthumous honor in 1999.[3]

Ellington called his music "American Music" rather than jazz, and liked to describe those who impressed him as "beyond category".[4] These included many of the musicians who were members of his orchestra, some of whom are considered among the best in jazz in their own right, but it was Ellington who melded them into one of the best-known jazz orchestral units in the history of jazz. He often composed specifically for the style and skills of these individuals, such as "Jeep's Blues" for Johnny Hodges, "Concerto for Cootie" for Cootie Williams, which later became "Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me" with Bob Russell's lyrics, and "The Mooche" for Tricky Sam Nanton and Bubber Miley. He also recorded songs written by his bandsmen, such as Juan Tizol's "Caravan" and "Perdido" which brought the "Spanish Tinge" to big-band jazz. Several members of the orchestra remained there for several decades. After 1941, he frequently collaborated with composer-arranger-pianist Billy Strayhorn, whom he called his "writing and arranging companion".[5] Ellington recorded for many American record companies, and appeared in several films.

Ellington led his band from 1923 until his death in 1974. His son Mercer Ellington, who had already been handling all administrative aspects of his father's business for several decades, led the band until his own death in 1996. At that point, the original band dissolved. Paul Ellington, Mercer's youngest son and executor of the Duke Ellington estate,[6] kept the Duke Ellington Orchestra going from Mercer's death onwards.[7]

Early lifeEdit

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 to James Edward Ellington and Daisy Kennedy Ellington. Daisy and J.E. were both pianists. Daisy primarily played parlor songs and J.E. preferred operatic arias. They lived with his maternal grandparents at 2129 Ida Place (now Ward Place), NW in the West End neighborhood of Washington, D.C.[8] His father, James Edward Ellington, was born in Lincolnton, North Carolina on April 15, 1879 and moved to Washington, D.C. in 1886 with his parents.[9] Daisy Kennedy was born in Washington, D.C. on January 4, 1879, and was the daughter of a former American slave.[8][10] James Ellington made blueprints for the United States Navy.

At the age of seven, Ellington began taking piano lessons from Marietta Clinkscales. Daisy surrounded her son with dignified women to reinforce his manners and teach him to live elegantly. Ellington’s childhood friends noticed that "his casual, offhand manner, his easy grace, and his dapper dress gave him the bearing of a young nobleman",[11] and began calling him Duke. Ellington credited his "chum" Edgar McEntree for the nickname. "I think he felt that in order for me to be eligible for his constant companionship, I should have a title. So he called me Duke."[12]

Though Ellington took piano lessons, he was more interested in baseball. "President Roosevelt (Teddy) would come by on his horse sometimes, and stop and watch us play", he recalled.[13] Ellington went to Armstrong Technical High School in Washington, D.C. He got his first job selling peanuts at Washington Senators baseball games.

In the summer of 1914, while working as a soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Cafe, he wrote his first composition, "Soda Fountain Rag" (also known as the "Poodle Dog Rag"). Ellington created "Soda Fountain Rag" by ear, because he had not yet learned to read and write music. "I would play the 'Soda Fountain Rag' as a one-step, two-step, waltz, tango, and fox trot", Ellington recalled. "Listeners never knew it was the same piece. I was established as having my own repertoire."[14] In his autobiography, Music is my Mistress (1973), Ellington said he missed more lessons than he attended, feeling at the time that playing the piano was not his talent. Ellington started sneaking into Frank Holiday's Poolroom at the age of fourteen. Hearing the poolroom pianists play ignited Ellington's love for the instrument and he began to take his piano studies seriously. Among the many piano players he listened to were Doc Perry, Lester Dishman, Louis Brown, Turner Layton, Gertie Wells, Clarence Bowser, Sticky Mack, Blind Johnny, Cliff Jackson, Claude Hopkins, Phil Wurd, Caroline Thornton, Luckey Roberts, Eubie Blake, Joe Rochester, and Harvey Brooks.[15]

Ellington began listening to, watching, and imitating ragtime pianists, not only in Washington, D.C., but in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, where he vacationed with his mother during the summer months.[14] Dunbar High School music teacher Henry Lee Grant gave him private lessons in harmony. With the additional guidance of Washington pianist and band leader Oliver "Doc" Perry, Ellington learned to read sheet music, project a professional style, and improve his technique. Ellington was also inspired by his first encounters with stride pianists James P. Johnson and Luckey Roberts. Later in New York he took advice from Will Marion Cook, Fats Waller, and Sidney Bechet. Ellington started to play gigs in cafés and clubs in and around Washington, D.C. and his attachment grew to be so strong that he turned down an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1916. Three months before graduating he dropped out of Armstrong Manual Training School, where he was studying commercial art.[16]

Working as a freelance sign-painter from 1917, he began assembling groups to play for dances, and in 1919 met drummer Sonny Greer from New Jersey who encouraged Ellington's ambition to become a professional musician. Through his day job, Ellington's entrepreneurial side came out: when a customer would ask him to make a sign for a dance or party, he would ask them if they had musical entertainment; if not, Ellington would ask if he could play for them. He also had a messenger job with the U.S. Navy and State Departments. Ellington moved out of his parents' home and bought his own as he became a successful pianist. At first, he played in other ensembles, and in late 1917 formed his first group, "The Duke’s Serenaders" ("Colored Syncopators", his telephone directory advertising proclaimed).[16] He was not only a member, but also the booking agent. His first play date was at the True Reformer's Hall, where he took home 75 cents.[17]

Ellington played throughout the Washington, D.C. area and into Virginia for private society balls and embassy parties. The band included childhood friend Otto Hardwick, who started on string bass, then moved to C-melody sax and finally settled on alto saxophone; Arthur Whetsol on trumpet; Elmer Snowden on banjo; and Sonny Greer on drums. The band thrived, performing for both African-American and white audiences, a rarity during the racially divided times.[18]

Music careerEdit

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Early careerEdit

When his drummer Sonny Greer was invited to join the Wilber Sweatman Orchestra in New York City, Ellington made the fateful decision to leave behind his successful career in Washington, D.C., and move to Harlem, becoming one of the figures of the Harlem Renaissance. New dance crazes like the Charleston emerged in Harlem, as well as African-American musical theater, including Eubie Blake's Shuffle Along. After the young musicians left the Sweatman Orchestra to strike out on their own, they found an emerging jazz scene that was highly competitive and hard to crack. They hustled pool by day and played whatever gigs they could find. The young band met 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 June 1923, a gig in Atlantic City, New Jersey, led to a play date at the prestigious Exclusive Club in Harlem. This was followed in September 1923 by a move to the Hollywood Club – 49th and Broadway – and a four-year engagement, which gave Ellington a solid artistic base. He was known to play the bugle at the end of each performance. The group was called Elmer Snowden and his Black Sox Orchestra and had seven members, including James "Bubber" Miley. They renamed themselves "The Washingtonians". Snowden left the group in early 1924 and Ellington took over as bandleader. After a fire, the club was re-opened as the Club Kentucky (often referred to as the "Kentucky Club"), an engagement which set the stage for the biggest opportunities in Ellington's life.

Ellington made eight records in 1924, receiving composing credit on three including Choo Choo.[19] In 1925, Ellington contributed four songs to Chocolate Kiddies starring Lottie Gee and Adelaide Hall,[20] an all-African-American revue which introduced European audiences to African-American styles and performers. "Duke Ellington and his Kentucky Club Orchestra" grew to a ten-piece organization; they developed their own sound by displaying the non-traditional expression of Ellington’s arrangements, the street rhythms of Harlem, and the exotic-sounding trombone growls and wah-wahs, high-squealing trumpets, and sultry saxophone blues licks of the band members. For a short time soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet played with the group, imparting his propulsive swing and superior musicianship to the young band members. In 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. With a weekly radio broadcast, famous white clientele poured in nightly to see them. In October 1927, Ellington and his Orchestra recorded several compositions with Adelaide Hall. One track in particular, Creole Love Call became a worldwide sensation and gave both Ellington and Hall their first hit record.[21]

Ellington was joined in New York City by his wife, Edna Thompson, and son Mercer in the late twenties, but the couple soon permanently separated.[22] According to her obituary in Jet magazine, she was "[h]omesick for Washington" and returned (she died in 1967).[23]

Although trumpeter Bubber Miley was a member of the orchestra for only a short period, he had a major influence on Ellington's sound.[24] An early exponent of growl trumpet, his style changed the "sweet" dance band sound of the group to one that was hotter, which contemporaries termed "jungle" style. He also composed most of "Black and Tan Fantasy" and "Creole Love Call". An alcoholic, Miley had to leave the band before they gained wider fame. He died in 1932 at the age of 29. He was an important influence on Cootie Williams, who replaced him.

In 1927, Ellington made a career-advancing agreement with agent-publisher Irving Mills, giving Mills a 45% interest in Ellington's future.[25] Mills had an eye for new talent and early on published compositions by Hoagy Carmichael, Dorothy Fields, and Harold Arlen. During the 1930s, Ellington's popularity continued to increase – largely as a result of the promotional skills of Mills – who got more than his fair share of co-composer credits. From the beginning of their relationship, Mills arranged recording sessions on nearly every label including Brunswick, Victor, Columbia, OKeh, Perfect, Pathe, the ARC/Plaza group of labels (Cameo, Romeo, Lincoln, Oriole, Domino, Jewel, Banner), Hit of the Week, and Columbia's cheaper labels (Harmony, Diva, Velvet Tone, Clarion) labels which gave Ellington popular recognition, as well giving Ellington's fans the opportunity of hearing multiple versions of the same song. Ellington ended his association with Mills in 1937, although he continued to record under Mills' banner through to 1940.

At the Cotton Club, Ellington's group performed all the music for the revues, which mixed comedy, dance numbers, vaudeville, burlesque, music, and illegal alcohol. The musical numbers were composed by Jimmy McHugh and the lyrics by Dorothy Fields (later Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler), with some Ellington originals mixed in. Weekly radio broadcasts from the club gave Ellington national exposure. In 1929, Ellington appeared in his first movie, a nineteen-minute all-African-American RKO short, Black and Tan, in which he played the hero "Duke". In the same year, the Cotton Club Orchestra appeared on stage for several months in Florenz Ziegfeld's Show Girl, along with vaudeville stars Jimmy Durante, Eddie Foy, Jr., Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler, and with music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Gus Kahn. That feverish period also included numerous recordings, under the pseudonyms "Whoopee Makers", "The Jungle Band", "Harlem Footwarmers", and the "Ten Black Berries". In 1930, Ellington and his Orchestra connected with a whole different audience in a concert with Maurice Chevalier and they also performed at the Roseland Ballroom, "America's foremost ballroom". Noted composer Percy Grainger was also an early admirer and supporter. He wrote "The three greatest composers who ever lived are Bach, Delius and Duke Ellington. Unfortunately Bach is dead, Delius is very ill but we are happy to have with us today The Duke".[26]

In 1929, when Ellington conducted the orchestra for Show Girl, he met Will Vodery, Ziegfeld’s musical supervisor. In his 1946 biography, Duke Ellington, Barry Ulanov wrote:

From Vodery, as he (Ellington) says himself, he drew his chromatic convictions, his uses of the tones ordinarily extraneous to the diatonic scale, with the consequent alteration of the harmonic character of his music, its broadening, The deepening of his resources. It has become customary to ascribe the classical influences upon Duke – Delius, Debussy and Ravel – to direct contact with their music. Actually his serious appreciation of those and other modern composers, came after his meeting with Vodery.[27]

As the Depression worsened, the recording industry was in crisis, dropping over 90% of its artists by 1933.[28] Ellington and his orchestra survived the hard times by taking to the road in a series of tours. Radio exposure also helped maintain popularity. Ivie Anderson was hired as their featured vocalist in 1931 and she stayed with the band for eleven years: the longest term of any of Ellington's vocalists.[29] Sonny Greer had been providing occasional vocals and continued to do in a cross-talk feature with Anderson. Ellington, however, later had many different vocalists, including Herb Jeffries (until 1943) and Al Hibbler (who replaced Jeffries in 1943 and continued until 1951).

Ellington led the orchestra by conducting from the keyboard using piano cues and visual gestures; very rarely did he conduct using a baton. As a bandleader, Ellington was not a strict disciplinarian; he maintained control of his orchestra with a crafty combination of charm, humor, flattery, and astute psychology. A complex, private person, he revealed his feelings to only his closest intimates and effectively used his public persona to deflect attention away from himself.

While the band's United States audience remained mainly African-American in this period, the Cotton Club had a near-exclusive white clientele and the Ellington orchestra had a huge following overseas, exemplified by the success of their trip to England in 1933 and their 1934 visit to the European mainland. The English visit saw Ellington win praise from members of the "serious" music community, including composer Constant Lambert, which gave a boost to Ellington's aspiration to compose longer works. For agent Mills it was a publicity triumph, as Ellington was now internationally known. On the band's tour through the segregated South in 1934, they avoided some of the traveling difficulties of African-Americans by touring in private railcars. These provided easy accommodations, dining, and storage for equipment while avoiding the indignities of segregated facilities.

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The death of Ellington's mother in 1935 led to a temporary hiatus in his career. Competition was also intensifying, as African-American and white swing bands began to receive popular attention, including those of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Carter, Earl Hines, Chick Webb, and Count Basie. Swing dancing became a youth phenomenon, particularly with white college audiences, and "danceability" drove record sales and bookings. Jukeboxes proliferated nationwide, spreading the gospel of "swing". Ellington's band could certainly swing, but their strengths were mood and nuance, and richness of composition; hence his statement "jazz is music; swing is business".[30] Ellington countered with two developments. He made recordings of smaller groups (sextets, octets, and nonets) drawn from his then-15-man orchestra and he composed pieces intended to feature specific instrumentalist, as with "Jeep's Blues" for Johnny Hodges, "Yearning for Love" for Lawrence Brown, "Trumpet in Spades" for Rex Stewart, "Echoes of Harlem" for Cootie Williams and "Clarinet Lament" for Barney Bigard.

In 1937, Ellington returned to the Cotton Club which had relocated to the mid-town Theater District. In the summer of that year, his father died, and due to many expenses, Ellington's finances were tight. Things improved in 1938 and he met and moved in with Cotton Club employee Beatrice "Evie" Ellis. After splitting with agent Irving Mills, he signed on with the William Morris Agency. The 1930s ended with a very successful European tour just as World War II loomed.

Ellington delivered some huge hits during the 1930s, which greatly helped to build his overall reputation. Some of them include: "Mood Indigo" (1930), "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" (1932), "Sophisticated Lady" (1933), "Solitude" (1934), "In a Sentimental Mood" (1935), "Caravan" (1937), "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" (1938). "Take the "A" Train" which hit big in 1941, was written by Billy Strayhorn.

Strayhorn, originally hired as a lyricist, began his association with Ellington in 1939.[31] Nicknamed "Swee' Pea" for his mild manner, Strayhorn soon became a vital member of the Ellington Organization. Ellington showed great fondness for Strayhorn and never failed to speak glowingly of the man and their collaborative working relationship, "my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine".[32] Strayhorn, with his training in classical music, not only contributed his original lyrics and music, but also arranged and polished many of Ellington's works, becoming a second Ellington or "Duke's doppelganger". It was not uncommon for Strayhorn to fill in for Duke, whether in conducting or rehearsing the band, playing the piano, on stage, and in the recording studio.[33]

Duke in the 1940sEdit

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The band reached a creative peak in the early 1940s, when Ellington and a small hand-picked group of his composers and arrangers wrote for an orchestra of distinctive voices who displayed tremendous creativity.[34]

Some of the musicians created a sensation in their own right. The short-lived Jimmy Blanton transformed the use of double bass in jazz, allowing it to function as a solo rather than a rhythm instrument alone. Ben Webster, the Orchestra's first regular tenor saxophonist, started a rivalry with Johnny Hodges as the Orchestra's foremost voice in the sax section. Ray Nance joined, replacing Cootie Williams (who had "defected", contemporary wags claimed, to Benny Goodman). Nance, however, added violin to the instrumental colors Ellington had at his disposal.

Three-minute masterpieces flowed from the minds of Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Ellington's son Mercer Ellington, Mary Lou Williams and members of the Orchestra. "Cotton Tail", "Main Stem", "Harlem Airshaft", "Sidewalks of New York (East Side, West Side)", "Jack the bear", and dozens of others date from this period.

Privately made recordings of Nance's first concert date, at Fargo, North Dakota, on November 7, 1940 by Jack Towers and Dick Burris, are probably the most effective display of the band during this period. These recordings, later released as Duke Ellington at Fargo, 1940 Live, are among the first of innumerable live performances which survive, made by enthusiasts or broadcasters, significantly expanding the Ellington discography.

Ellington's long-term aim became to extend the jazz form from the three-minute limit of the 78 rpm record side, of which he was an acknowledged master.[35] He had composed and recorded Creole Rhapsody as early as 1931 (issued as both sides of a 12" record for Victor and both sides of a 10" record for Brunswick), and his tribute to his mother, "Reminiscing in Tempo", had filled four 10" record sides in 1935; however, it was not until the 1940s that this became a regular feature of Ellington's work.

In this, he was helped by Strayhorn, who had enjoyed a more thorough training in the forms associated with classical music than Ellington. The first of these, "Black, Brown, and Beige" (1943), was dedicated to telling the story of African-Americans, and the place of slavery and the church in their history. Ellington debuted Black, Brown and Beige in Carnegie Hall on January 23, 1943, beginning a series of concerts there suited to displaying Ellington's longer works. While some jazz musicians had played at Carnegie Hall before, few had performed anything as elaborate as Ellington’s work.

Unfortunately, starting a regular pattern, Ellington's longer works were generally not well received. Jump for Joy, a full-length musical based on themes of African-American identity, debuted on July 10, 1941 at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles. Although it had the support of the Hollywood establishment, and received mostly positive reviews, its socio-political outlook provoked a negative reaction among some members of the public. It ran for 122 performances until September 29, 1941, with a brief revival in November of that year. Its subject matter did not make it appealing to Broadway, despite Ellington's plans to take it there.[36]

The settlement of the first recording ban of 1942–43 had a serious effect on all the big bands because of the increase in royalty payments to musicians which resulted from it. The financial viability of Ellington's Orchestra came under threat, though Ellington's income as a songwriter ultimately subsidized it. Ellington always spent lavishly and although he drew a respectable income from the Orchestra's operations, the band's income often just covered expenses.[37]

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The music industry's focus shifted away from the big bands to the work of solo vocalists such as the young Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and mainstream groups like The Andrews Sisters as World War II drew to a close. The Kay Davis wordless vocal feature "Transblucency" (1946) was not going to have a similar reach. By the mid-1940s, jazz artists were changing their approach. The new form of jazz, bebop was an early hit with club owners of smaller venues who could draw the jazz audiences in New York City at a fraction of the cost of hiring a big band. Newer, smaller bands and splinter forms of music increasingly put pressure on the larger clubs who now had to pay higher wages to maintain their big bands. By 1950, another emerging musical trend, the African-American popular music style known as Rhythm and Blues driven by musicians like Fats Domino was drawing young audiences away.

Ellington continued on his own course through these tectonic shifts in the music business. He did not wholly resist trends while trying to turn out major works. He still performed major extended compositions such as Harlem (1950), whose score he presented to music-loving President Harry Truman. In 1951, Ellington suffered a major loss of personnel, with Sonny Greer, Lawrence Brown, and most significantly Johnny Hodges, leaving to pursue other ventures. Lacking overseas opportunities and motion picture appearances, Ellington's Orchestra survived on "one-nighters" and whatever else came their way.

Ellington's hope that television would provide a significant new outlet for his type of jazz was not fulfilled. Tastes and trends had moved on without him. The introduction of the 33Template:Fraction rpm LP record and hi-fi phonograph, though, did give new life to many of his older compositions. However by 1955, after three years of recording for Capitol, Ellington no longer had a regular recording affiliation.

Pre-War II RecordingsEdit

Ellington was the most prolific jazz orchestra of the era. After recording a handful of acoustic titles during 1924-1926, his signing with Irving Mills allowed him to record for nearly every label, often recording different versions of the same tune for numerous labels. In the main, during November, 1926 and 1930, he recorded concurrently for Brunswick-Vocalion, OKeh, and Victor, along with a handful of sessions for Columbia and the dime store labels (Cameo, Lincoln, Romeo, Perfect). On OKeh, his records were usually issued as The Harlem Footwarmers, while the Brunswick's were usually issued as The Jungle Band. Besides recording his own compositions, Ellington also recorded a handful of current hits, as well as a number of specially written songs by Dorothy Fields-Jimmy McHugh and Fats Waller-Andy Razaf for various Cotton Club Revues.

This continued until Ellington basically signed exclusively to Brunswick in 1932 and stayed with them through late 1936 (with a short 1933-34 temporary switch to Victor), when Irving Mills moved him from Brunswick to Mills' new Master label, and various small groups within Ellington's band recorded on Mills' Variety label 'fronted' by his 4 main soloists, Barney Bigard, Rex Stewart, Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams. After the Master and Variety labels collapsed in late 1937, Mills placed Ellington back on Brunswick and those small group units on Vocalion through 1940, when Ellington signed back to Victor (and the small groups were placed on Bluebird).

Career revivalEdit

Ellington's appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956 returned him to wider prominence and exposed him to new audiences. The feature "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" comprised two tunes that had been in the band's book since 1937 but largely forgotten until Ellington, who had abruptly ended the band's scheduled set because of the late arrival of four key players, called the two tunes as the time was approaching midnight. Announcing that the two pieces would be separated by an "interlude" played by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, Ellington proceeded to lead the band through the two pieces, with Gonsalves' 28-chorus marathon solo whipping the crowd into a frenzy, leading the Maestro to play way beyond the curfew time despite urgent pleas from Festive organizer George Wein to bring the program to an end. The concert made international headlines, led to a Time magazine cover story (a very rare accolade for a jazz musician)[38] and resulted in an album that would become the best-selling long-playing recording of Ellington's career. Ellington at Newport was the first release in a new recording contract with Columbia Records which yielded six years of recording stability, mainly under producer Irving Townsend, who coaxed both commercial and artistic productions from Ellington.[39] Ironically though, much of the music on the vinyl LP was, in effect, "simulated". Owing to unfortunate microphone placement, much of the band's set proved too poorly recorded for commercial release. The band assembled the next day to re-record several of the numbers with the addition of artificial crowd noise, none of which was disclosed to purchasers of the album. Not until 1999 was the concert recording properly released for the first time.

The revived attention brought about by the Newport appearance should not have surprised anyone –-star soloist Johnny Hodges had returned to the fold the previous year, and Ellington's collaboration with Strayhorn had been renewed around the same time, under terms more amenable to the younger man. Such Sweet Thunder (1957), based on Shakespeare's plays and characters, and The Queen's Suite, dedicated to Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, were products of the renewed impetus which the Newport appearance helped to create.

In 1957, CBS (Columbia Record's parent corporation) aired a live television production of A Drum Is a Woman, an allegorical suite which received mixed reviews. Festival appearances at the new Monterey Jazz Festival and elsewhere provided venues for live exposure, and a European tour in 1958 was well received.

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While his music had been featured on screen for many years and the whole orchestra had performed in film shorts, Ellington (with Strayhorn) now began to work directly on music for movies, contributing scores for Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Paris Blues (1961). Ellington and Strayhorn, always looking for new musical territory, produced suites for John Steinbeck's novel Sweet Thursday, Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite and Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt. The late 1950s also saw Ella Fitzgerald record her Duke Ellington Songbook with Ellington and his orchestra—a recognition that Ellington's songs had now become part of the cultural canon known as the 'Great American Songbook'.

Detroit Free Press music critic Mark Stryker concludes that the work of Billy Strayhorn and Ellington in Anatomy of a Murder, the trial court drama film directed by Otto Preminger, is "indispensable, [although] . . . too sketchy to rank in the top echelon among Ellington-Strayhorn masterpiece suites like Such Sweet Thunder and The Far East Suite, but its most inspired moments are their equal."[40] Film historians have recognized the soundtrack "as a landmark – the first significant Hollywood film music by African Americans comprising non-diegetic music, that is, music whose source is not visible or implied by action in the film, like an on-screen band." The score avoided the cultural stereotypes which previously characterized jazz scores and rejected a strict adherence to visuals in ways that presaged the New Wave cinema of the ’60s".[41]

In the early 1960s, Ellington embraced recording with artists who had been friendly rivals in the past, or were younger musicians who focused on later styles. The Ellington and Count Basie orchestras recorded together. During a period when he was between recording contracts, he made records with Louis Armstrong (Roulette), Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane (both for Impulse) and participated in a session with Charles Mingus and Max Roach which produced the Money Jungle (United Artists) album. He signed to Frank Sinatra's new Reprise label, but the association with the label was short-lived.

Musicians who had previously worked with Ellington returned to the Orchestra as members: Lawrence Brown in 1960 and Cootie Williams in 1962.

"The writing and playing of music is a matter of intent.... You can't just throw a paint brush against the wall and call whatever happens art. My music fits the tonal personality of the player. I think too strongly in terms of altering my music to fit the performer to be impressed by accidental music. You can't take doodling seriously."[14]
He formed new working relationships with artists from around the world, including the Swedish vocalist Alice Babs, and South African musicians Dollar Brand and Sathima Bea Benjamin (A Morning in Paris, 1963/1997). He was now performing all over the world; a significant part of each year was spent on overseas tours.

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Last yearsEdit

Ellington was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1965, but was turned down.[42] His reaction at 67 years old: "Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be famous too young."[43] In September of the same year, the first of his Sacred Concerts was given its premiere. It was an attempt to fuse Christian liturgy with jazz, and even though it received mixed reviews, Ellington was proud of the composition and performed it dozens of times. This concert was followed by two others of the same type in 1968 and 1973, known as the Second and Third Sacred Concerts. This caused controversy in what was already a tumultuous time in the United States. Many saw the Sacred Music suites as an attempt to reinforce commercial support for organized religion, though Ellington simply said it was "the most important thing I've done".[44] The Steinway piano upon which the Sacred Concerts were composed is part of the collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Like Haydn and Mozart, Ellington conducted his orchestra from the piano – he always played the keyboard parts when the Sacred Concerts were performed.[45]

Ellington continued to make vital and innovative recordings, including The Far East Suite (1966), the New Orleans Suite (1970), and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (1971), much of it inspired by his world tours. It was during this time that Ellington recorded his only album with Frank Sinatra, entitled Francis A. & Edward K. (1967).

Ellington was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966. He was later awarded several other prizes, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, an Honorary PhD from the Berklee College of Music in 1971, and the Legion of Honor by France in 1973, the highest civilian honors in each country.[3]

Work in films and the theaterEdit

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Ellington's film work began in 1929 with the short film Black and Tan.[46] Symphony in Black (1935) featured his extended piece 'A Rhapsody of Negro Life'. It introduced Billie Holiday, and won an Academy Award as the best musical short subject. He also appeared in the Amos 'n' Andy film Check and Double Check (1930). Ellington and his Orchestra continued to appear in films through the 1930s and 1940s, both in short films and in features such as Murder at the Vanities and Belle of the Nineties (1934), and Cabin in the Sky (1943). In the late 1950s, his work in films took the shape of scoring for soundtracks, notably Anatomy of a Murder (1959), with James Stewart, in which he appeared fronting a roadhouse combo, and Paris Blues (1961), which featured Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier as jazz musicians.

He wrote an original score for director Michael Langham's production of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada which opened on July 29, 1963. Langham has used it for several subsequent productions, most recently in an adaptation by Stanley Silverman which expands the score with some of Ellington's best-known works.

Ellington composed the score for the musical Jump For Joy, which was performed in Los Angeles during 1941. Ellington's sole book musical, Beggar's Holiday, was staged on Broadway in 1946. Sophisticated Ladies, an award-winning 1981 musical revue, incorporated many tunes from his repertoire. A second Broadway musical interpolating Ellington's music, Play On!, debuted in 1997.

Personal lifeEdit

Ellington married his high school sweetheart, Edna Thompson, on July 2, 1918, when he was 19. Shortly after their marriage, on March 11, 1919 Edna gave birth to their only son, Mercer Kennedy Ellington. Mercer played trumpet and piano, led his own band and worked as his father's business manager, eventually taking full control of the band after Duke's death. He was an important archivist of his father's musical life.

Ellington's sister Ruth (1915–2004) later ran Tempo Music, Ellington's music publishing company. Ruth's second husband was the bass-baritone McHenry Boatwright, whom she met when he sang at her brother's funeral.

Ellington continued to appear in public until a couple of months before he died from lung cancer and pneumonia on May 24, 1974, a month after his 75th birthday. His last words were, "Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered."[47] At his funeral, attended by over 12,000 people at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Ella Fitzgerald summed up the occasion, "It's a very sad day. A genius has passed."[48] He was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York City.[49]

In 1999, the annual Pulitzer Prize for music – which he was recommended for but which was denied him back in 1965 – was awarded to him posthumously.[50]


Ellington's work has come to be recognized as a cornerstone of American culture and heritage. He is widely regarded as the most important composer in jazz; he was also a galvanizing band leader who inspired many of his musicians to produce their best work, while himself being a significant exponent of jazz piano. His talent as a pianist, however, is overlooked by many due to his unmatched composing and arranging abilities. His works have been revisited by artists and musicians around the world both as a source of inspiration and a bedrock of their own performing careers. Ellington's compositions are now the staple of the repertoire of music conservatories, and even high-school band programs that have embraced his music continue to give it life and voice.[citation needed]

His son, Mercer Ellington kept his big band alive after his death. When Mercer died, Paul Ellington kept the Duke Ellington Orchestra going. It plays in concert halls around the world to this day. But as Phyl Garland of Ebony magazine writes, the elder Ellington will always be remembered for "the daring innovations that came to mark his music—the strange modulations (changing from one key to another) built upon lush melodies that ramble into unexpected places, the unorthodox (untraditional) construction of songs.…" [51]

Today, Mercedes Ellington, Duke Ellington's granddaughter, keeps her grandfather's legacy alive as President of the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts.[52] Ellington's eldest grandson Edward Kennedy Ellington II also is a musician and maintains a small salaried band known as the Duke Ellington Legacy, which frequently comprises the core of the big band operated by The Duke Ellington Center for the Arts.


Main article: Duke Ellington discography

Awards, honors and recognitionsEdit


File:Duke Ellington Grave 1024.jpg

Numerous memorials have been dedicated to Duke Ellington, in cities from New York and Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles.

In Ellington's birthplace, Washington, D.C., there is a school, building and park dedicated to his honor and memory as well as one of the bridges over Rock Creek Park. The Duke Ellington School of the Arts educates talented students, who are considering careers in the arts, by providing intensive arts instruction and strong academic programs that prepare students for post-secondary education and professional careers. The Calvert Street Bridge was renamed the Duke Ellington Bridge in 1974; built in 1935, it connects Woodley Park to Adams Morgan.

In 1989, a bronze plaque was attached to the newly named Duke Ellington Building at 2121 Ward Place, NW.[53] In 2012, the new owner of the building commissioned a mural by Aniekan Udofia that appears above the lettering "Duke Ellington".

In 2010 the triangular park, across the street from Duke Ellington's birth site, at the intersection of New Hampshire and M Streets, NW was named the Duke Ellington Park.[54] Ellington's residence at 2728 Sherman Avenue, NW, during the years 1919-1922,[55] is marked by a bronze plaque.

On February 24, 2009, the United States Mint launched a new coin featuring Duke Ellington, making him the first African American to appear by himself on a circulating U.S. coin.[56] Ellington appears on the reverse ("tails") side of the District of Columbia quarter.[56] The coin is part of the U.S. Mint's program honoring the District and the U.S. territories[57] and celebrates Ellington's birthplace in the District of Columbia.[56] Ellington is depicted on the quarter seated at a piano, sheet music in hand, along with the inscription "Justice for All", which is the District's motto.[57]

Ellington lived for years in a townhouse on the corner of Manhattan's Riverside Drive and West 106th Street. After his death, West 106th Street was officially renamed Duke Ellington Boulevard. A large memorial to Ellington, created by sculptor Robert Graham, was dedicated in 1997 in New York's Central Park, near Fifth Avenue and 110th Street, an intersection named Duke Ellington Circle.

Although he made two more stage appearances before his death, Ellington performed what is considered his final "full" concert in a ballroom at Northern Illinois University on March 20, 1974.[58] The hall was renamed the Duke Ellington Ballroom in 1980.

A statue of Ellington at a piano is featured at the entrance to UCLA's Schoenberg Hall. According to UCLA Magazine:

When UCLA students were entranced by Duke Ellington's provocative tunes at a Culver City club in 1937, they asked the budding musical great to play a free concert in Royce Hall. 'I've been waiting for someone to ask us!' Ellington exclaimed. On the day of the concert, Ellington accidentally mixed up the venues and drove to USC instead. He eventually arrived at the UCLA campus and, to apologize for his tardiness, played to the packed crowd for more than four hours. And so, "Sir Duke" and his group played the first-ever jazz performance in a concert venue.[59]

He is one of only five jazz musicians ever to have been featured on the cover of Time (the other four being Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Wynton Marsalis, and Dave Brubeck).[60]

The Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival is a nationally renowned annual competition for prestigious high school bands. Started in 1996 at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the festival is named after Ellington because of the large focus that the festival places on his works.


File:Duke Ellington star HWF.JPG

There are hundreds of albums dedicated to the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn by artists famous and obscure. The more notable artists include Sonny Stitt, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine Tony Bennett, Claude Bolling, Oscar Peterson, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Dick Hyman, Joe Pass, Milt Jackson, Earl Hines, André Previn, World Saxophone Quartet, Ben Webster, Zoot Sims, Kenny Burrell, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Martial Solal, Clark Terry and Randy Weston.

Homage from criticsEdit

Gunther Schuller wrote, "Ellington composed incessantly to the very last days of his life. Music was indeed his mistress; it was his total life and his commitment to it was incomparable and unalterable. In jazz he was a giant among giants. And in twentieth century music, he may yet one day be recognized as one of the half-dozen greatest masters of our time."[63]

Martin Williams said: "Duke Ellington lived long enough to hear himself named among our best composers. And since his death in 1974, it has become not at all uncommon to see him named, along with Charles Ives, as the greatest composer we have produced, regardless of category."[64]

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Duke Ellington on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.[65]

Andre Previn said, "You know, Stan Kenton can stand in front of a thousand fiddles and a thousand brass and make a dramatic gesture and every studio arranger can nod his head and say, ‘‘Oh, yes, that’s done like this.’’ But Duke merely lifts his finger, three horns make a sound, and I don’t know what it is!"[66]


Grammy AwardsEdit

Ellington earned 12 Grammy awards from 1959 to 2000, three of which were posthumous.

Duke Ellington Grammy Award History[67]
Year Category Title Genre Result
1999 Historical Album The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition
RCA Victor Recordings (1927–1973)
Jazz Winner
1979 Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Big Band Duke Ellington At Fargo, 1940 Live Jazz Winner
1976 Best Jazz Performance By A Big Band The Ellington Suites Jazz Winner
1972 Best Jazz Performance By A Big Band Togo Brava Suite Jazz Winner
1971 Best Jazz Performance By A Big Band New Orleans Suite Jazz Winner
1968 Best Instrumental Jazz Performance – Large Group
Or Soloist With Large Group
...And His Mother Called Him Bill Jazz Winner
1967 Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Large Group
Or Soloist With Large Group
Far East Suite Jazz Winner
1966 Best Original Jazz Composition "In The Beginning God" Jazz Winner
1965 Best Instrumental Jazz Performance -
Large Group Or Soloist With Large Group
Ellington '66 Jazz Winner
1959 Best Performance By A Dance Band Anatomy of a Murder Pop Winner
1959 Best Musical Composition First Recorded
And Released In 1959
(More Than 5 Minutes Duration)
Anatomy of a Murder Composing Winner
1959 Best Sound Track Album – Background Score
From A Motion Picture Or Television
Anatomy of a Murder Composing Winner

Grammy Hall of FameEdit

Recordings of Duke Ellington were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance".

Duke Ellington: Grammy Hall of Fame Award[68][69]
Year Recorded Title Genre Label Year Inducted
1932 "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" Jazz (Single) Brunswick 2008
1934 "Cocktails for Two" Jazz (Single) Victor 2007
1957 Ellington at Newport Jazz (Album) Columbia 2004
1956 "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" Jazz (Single) Columbia 1999
1967 Far East Suite Jazz (Album) RCA 1999
1944 Black, Brown and Beige Jazz (Single) RCA Victor 1990
1928 "Black and Tan Fantasy" Jazz (Single) Victor 1981
1941 "Take the "A" Train" Jazz (Single) Victor 1976
1931 "Mood Indigo" Jazz (Single) Brunswick 1975

Honors and inductionsEdit

File:2009 DC Proof.png
Year Category Notes
2009 Commemorative U.S. quarter D.C. and U.S. Territories Quarters Program.[70][71]
2008 Gennett Records Walk of Fame
2004 Nesuhi Ertegün Jazz Hall of Fame
at Jazz at Lincoln Center
1999 Pulitzer Prize Special Citation[3]
1992 Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame
1986 22¢ commemorative U.S. stamp Issued April 29, 1986[72]
1978 Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame
1973 French Legion of Honor[73] July 6, 1973
1973 Honorary Degree in Music from Columbia University May 16, 1973
1971 Honorary Doctorate Degree from Berklee College of Music
1971 Songwriters Hall of Fame
1969 Presidential Medal of Freedom
1956 Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame inductee
1968 Grammy Trustees Award Special Merit Award
1966 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
1959 NAACP Spingarn Medal


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  2. Boston Globe, April 25, 1999
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 1999 Pulitzer Prize Winners Special Awards and Citations
  4. Tucker 1995, p. 6 writes "He tried to avoid the word 'jazz' preferring 'Negro' or 'American' music. He claimed there were only two types of music, 'good' and 'bad' ... And he embraced a phrase coined by his colleague Billy Strayhorn – 'beyond category' – as a liberating principle."
  5. Hajdu, David (1996), Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, ISBN 978-0-86547-512-0, page 170.
  6. "Paul Ellington". Retrieved on September 18, 2009.
  7. Entertainment Booking Agency, "The Duke Ellington Orchestra". Retrieved on September 18, 2009.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Lawrence 2001, p. 1
  9. Lawrence 2001, p. 2.
  10. Hasse 1995, p. 21.
  11. Terkel 2002
  12. Ellington 1976, p. 20.
  13. Ellington 1976, p. 10.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 "Ellington, Duke". Current Biography. H.W. Wilson Company, 1970.
  15. Smith, Willie the Lion (1964). Music on My Mind: The Memoirs of an American Pianist, Foreword by Duke Ellington. New York City: Doubleday & Company Inc. pp. ix. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 Simmonds, Yussuf (September 11, 2008). "Duke Ellington". Los Angeles Sentinel. Retrieved July 14, 2009. 
  17. Hasse 1993, p. 45.
  18. Cohen, Harvey G. (Autumn 2004). "The Marketing of Duke Ellington: Setting the Strategy for an African American Maestro". The Journal of African-American History (Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, Inc.) 89 (4): 291–315. doi:10.2307/4134056. JSTOR 4134056. 
  19. Hasse 1993, p. 79.
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  25. Hasse 1993, p. 90.
  26. John Bird, Percy Grainger
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  28. Hasse 1993, p. 166.
  29. "Musician Ivie Anderson (Vocal) @ All About Jazz". Retrieved 2013-02-02. 
  30. Hasse 1993, p. 203.
  31. Stone, Sonjia (ed) (1983). "WILLIAM THOMAS STRAYHORN". Billy Strayhorn Songs. University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Retrieved July 14, 2009.  Template loop detected: Template:Fix/category[dead link]
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  36. Brent, David (February 6, 2008). "Jump For Joy: Duke Ellington’s Celebratory Musical | Night Lights Classic Jazz – WFIU Public Radio". Retrieved December 31, 2011. 
  37. Hasse 1993, p. 274.
  38. Time magazine has only featured Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, and Wynton Marsalis on its cover in addition to Ellington.
  39. Wein, George (2003). Myself Among Others: A Life in Music. Da Capo Press. 
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  41. Mark Stryker "Ellington's score still celebrated", Detroit Free Press, January 20, 2009; Mervyn Cooke, History of Film Music, 2008, Cambridge University Press.
  42. Gary Giddins, "How Come Jazz Isn't Dead", p. 39–55 in Weisbard 2004, pp. 41–42. Giddins remarks that in 1965 Ellington was denied the Pulitzer because the Pulitzer jury commended him for his body of work rather than for a particular composition, but his posthumous Pulitzer was granted precisely for that life-long body of work.
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  54. "Bill 18-700, the "Duke Ellington Park Designation Act of 2010"". West End Friends. Retrieved 5 December 2012. 
  55. "Letter from Curator of the Peabody Library Association of Georgetown, D.C. Mathilde D. Williams to Felix Grant, September 21, 1972". Felix E. Grant Digital Collection. Retrieved 5 December 2012. 
  56. 56.0 56.1 56.2 Staff reporter (February 24, 2009). "Jazz man is first African-American to solo on U.S. circulating coin". CNN. Retrieved October 3, 2009. "The United States Mint launched a new coin Tuesday featuring jazz legend Duke Ellington, making him the first African American to appear by himself on a circulating U.S. coin. [...] The coin was issued to celebrate Ellington's birthplace, the District of Columbia."  (Archived by WebCite at
  57. 57.0 57.1 United States Mint. Coins and Medals. District of Columbia.
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  59. Maya Parmer, "Curtain Up: Two Days of the Duke", UCLA Magazine, April 1, 2009
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  64. Martin Williams, liner notes, Duke Ellington's Symphony in Black, The Smithsonian Jazz Repertory Ensemble conducted by Gunther Schuller, The Smithsonian Collections recording, 1980.
  65. Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
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  • Cohen, Harvey G. Duke Ellington's America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-226-11263-3
  • Collier, James Lincoln. Duke Ellington. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. ISBN 0-19-503770-7
  • Dailey, Raleigh. "Ellington as a Composer for the Piano", in Jazz Research Proceedings Yearbook, No. 31 (Jan.2001), pp. 151–156.
  • Dance, Stanley. The World Of Duke Ellington. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970. ISBN 0-306-80136-1
  • Ellington, Duke. Music Is My Mistress. New York: Da Capo, 1976 ISBN 0-7043-3090-3
  • Ellington, Mercer. Duke Ellington in Person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978. ISBN 0-395-25711-5.
  • Hajdu, David, Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996. ISBN 978-0-86547-512-0.
  • Hasse, John Edward. Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington. New York: Da Capo, 1995. ISBN 0-306-80614-2
  • Howland, John. "Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and the Birth of Concert Jazz". Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-472-03316-4.
  • Lawrence, A. H. Duke Ellington and His World: A Biography. New York: Routledge, 2001. ISBN 0-415-93012-X
  • Schuller, Gunther. Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. ISBN 978-0-19-504043-2. Especially pp. 318–357.
  • Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era: The Development Of Jazz, 1930–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-507140-5. Esp. pp. 46–157.
Gilles Tordjman, François Billiard, Duke Ellington, Le Seuil, Paris, 1994. ISBN 978-2-02-013700-3
  • Terkel, Studs (2002), Giants of Jazz (2nd ed.), New York: The New Press, ISBN 978-1-56584-769-9.
  • Tucker, Mark. Ellington, The Early Years, University of Illinois Press, 1991. ISBN 0-252-01425-1
  • Tucker, Mark. The Duke Ellington Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993 ISBN 978-0-19-509391-9 .
  • Ulanov, Barry. Duke Ellington, Creative Age Press, 1946.
  • Weisbard, Eric, ed.. This Is Pop: In Search of the Elusive at Experience Music Project. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-674-01344-1.
  • Massagli, Luciano and Volonté, Giovanni. The New Desor: Duke Ellington's Story on Records Parts One and Two, 1999, Milan, Italy. Privately published two-part discography with no ISBN number. The most comprehensive Ellington discography for sessions and record issues.
  • Stratemann, Dr. Klaus. Duke Ellington: Day by Day and Film by Film. Copenhagen: JazzMedia, 1992. ISBN 87-88043-34-7 Covers all of Duke's travels and films from the 1929 short film Black and Tan onwards.
  • Timner, W.E. Ellingtonia: The Recorded Music of Duke Ellington and His Sidemen. 5th ed. Lanham, Md. & Toronto: Scarecrow Press, 2007. ISBN 0-8108-5889-4 Has a unique discography of Ellington's sidemen.

External linksEdit

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