He created among the very most distinguishing ensemble sounds in Western music and continued to play what he called “American Music” until just before his passing in 1974. Produced on April 29, 1899, Duke Ellington was raised by two gifted, musical parents in a middle class area of Washington DC. In the age of 7, he started studying piano and earned the nickname “Duke” for his gentlemanly manners. Inspired by his occupation as a soda jerk, he composed his first composition, “Soda Fountain Rag,” in the age of 15. Despite being given an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Ny, Ellington followed his passion for ragtime and started to play professionally at age 17.
Ellington sought out musicians with exceptional playing styles, like 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 comprised the trumpeter Cootie Williams, cornetist Rex Stewart and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. Ellington made numerous records along with his groups, appeared in movies as well as on radio, and toured Europe on two occasions in the 1930s. Several his hits were sung by the remarkable Ivie Anderson, a popular female vocalist of Duke’s group.
It absolutely was Ellington’s awareness of musical drama that made him stand out. His combination of tunes, beats and subtle sonic movements gave audiences a fresh encounter sophisticated yet accessible jazz that made the heart swing. Ellington’s autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, was printed in 1973. Ellington earned 12 Grammy awards from 1959 to 2000, nine while he was living.
In the age of 19, Ellington married Edna Thompson, who’d been his girlfriend since high school, and shortly after their union, she gave birth to their own only child, Mercer Kennedy Ellington. On May 24, 1974, in the age of 75, Duke Ellington died of lung cancer and pneumonia. His last words were, “Music is really how I live, why I live and how I ‘ll be recalled.” More than 12,000 people attended his funeral.