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Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974), also known simply as Duke, was an American jazz composer, pianist, and bandleader.
Many regard Duke Ellington as the most important figure to emerge from the U.S. jazz scene in the twentieth century, although Ellington himself might have quibbled with the description, as he was reluctant to describe his work as anything more specific than "music". The word "jazz" was too narrow for Ellington, a man whose greatest compliment was to describe others who had impressed him as "beyond category". Indeed, Ellington has proved to be enigmatic, slipping through the easy classifications of biographers. Musicians run into much the same kind of problem when dealing with Ellington's compositions. Musically, he wore many hats, and he could never settle on just one. Through the ranks of Duke Ellington's Orchestra passed some of the biggest names in jazz, including Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Bubber Miley, Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton, Barney Bigard, Ben Webster, Harry Carney, Sonny Greer, Otto Hardwick, Clark Terry, Jimmy Blanton, Ray Nance, Paul Gonsalves, and Wellman Braud.
Many of these musicians played in Ellington's orchestra for decades, and while most were noteworthy in their own right, it was Ellington's musical genius that melded them into one of the most well-known orchestral units in the history of jazz. Ellington and his band (in its various incarnations) were prolific.
Ellington was one of the twentieth century's best-known African-American celebrities. He recorded for many American record companies, and appeared in several films. Ellington and his orchestra toured the whole of the United States and Europe regularly before World War II. After the war, they continued to travel widely internationally.
Duke's father, James Edward Ellington, born in Lincolnton, North Carolina on April 15, 1879, was the son of a former slave. He moved to Washington, D.C. in 1886 with his family. Ellington was born to J.E. and Daisy Kennedy Ellington at 2129 Ward Place NW (the home of his maternal grandparents) in Washington. J.E. made blueprints for the United States Navy; he also worked as a White House butler for additional income. Daisy and J.E. were both piano players, and at the age of seven or eight Ellington began taking piano lessons from a Mrs. Clinkscales who lived at 1212 Street NW (the address erroneously, but commonly, given as his childhood home). In his autobiography, Ellington claims he missed more lessons than he went to, feeling that the piano was not his talent. Over time, this would change. Ellington snuck into Frank Holiday's Poolroom at fourteen and began to gain a greater respect for music. Hearing a mentor play the piano ignited Ellington's love for the instrument and he began to take his piano studies seriously. He began performing professionally at the age of seventeen. Instead of going to an academic-oriented high school, he attended Armstrong Manual Training School to study commercial art. Three months before he was to graduate, he left school to pursue his interest in the piano.
Duke Ellington began his artistic career as a sign painter in Washington, D.C., but by 1923 he had formed a small dance band known as The Washingtonians (which included drummer Sonny Greer), and moved to New York City. Shortly thereafter, the group became the house band of the Club Kentucky (often referred to as the "Kentucky Club"), an engagement which set the stage for the biggest opportunity in Ellington's life. In 1927, King Oliver turned down a job as the house band for Harlem's famed Cotton Club, and the offer fell into Ellington's lap. With a weekly radio broadcast and famous clientele pouring in nightly to see them, Ellington's popularity skyrocketed.
Ellington's band had become a large orchestra and the ranks had been filled by many men who would later become famous in their own right. Trumpeter Bubber Miley was the first major soloist, an early experimenter in jazz trumpet growling. Miley is credited with morphing the band's style from rigid dance instrumentation to a more "New Orleans" or earthy style. An alcoholic, Miley had to leave the band before they gained wider notoriety, and died in 1930 at the age of twenty-eight. Johnny Hodges joined the orchestra in 1928 and stayed until his death in 1970, except for two brief sabbaticals. Hodges became the band's undisputed superstar soloist, the king of romantic alto saxophone ballads with his swooning, creamy style remaining influential for years. Barney Bigard, formerly a member of King Oliver's band, was a master of New Orleans jazz clarinet and stayed with the band for twelve years. Harry Carney was one of the original innovators of the baritone saxophone, winning each Downbeat magazine poll until the arrival of Gerry Mulligan. Carney, who also pioneered circular breathing, was the longest lasting member of the orc
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