Duke Ellington: Aristocrat of Swing

By virtue of his dashing and debonair demeanor and his penchant for natty threads, Edward Kennedy Ellington (1899-1974) was already nicknamed “Duke” by his friends when he was still as a kid. Ellington grew up in Washington, D.C., where his father drew blueprints for the navy. His dad was an opera fan; his mom liked popular parlor songs. Both played piano and saw to it that Duke received lessons. By the time he was a teenager he had composed his first ragtime tune.

Ellington became obsessed with music in an era when there was a lot to be obsessed about. He studied the playing styles of local musicians and dropped his art studies (including a scholarship to Pratt) in order to form a jazz a band called the Duke’s Serenaders circa 1916. He started out playing parties and society gatherings.

By the mid 20s Ellington’s band was working at prestigious Harlem nightclubs, his bands had now grown to orchestra size and he began making recordings, songs used In 1925 he wrote songs for the revue Chocolate Kiddies starring Adelaide Hall. With Hall he recorded his song “Creole Love Call” in 1927, which became his first big hit. That year, his outfit also became the house band at the famous Cotton Club. During these period the growling trumpets of Bubber Miller and then Cootie Williams became part of his signature sound. Combined with throbbing tom-toms and wailing clarinets, the overall effect suggested the African jungle, a perfect sound for the floor shows and dance revues at the Cotton Club. At places like the Cotton Club and the Apollo, the Duke Ellington Orchestra provided musical accompaniment for such great dancers as Earl “Snakehips” Tucker, the Berry Brothers, the Nicholas Brothers, Bill Robinson, Peg Leg Bates, the Four Step Brothers, Fredi Washington, Bill Bailey (Pearl Bailey’s brother), Honi Coles, Chuck and Chuckles and Stump and Stumpy.

In 1929 Ellington was hired as musical director for the Ziegfeld production Show Girl. The same year he was featured in his first movie, an RKO short called Black and Tan. In 1930 he was in the Amos and Andy comedy Check and Double Check. This was the era of some of his best known hit tunes. He wrote the music for the songs “Mood Indigo” (1930), “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing” (1931), and “Sophisticated Lady” (1932). He also had a hit in 1934 with a cover of “Cocktails for Two”. In the ’30s he became a frequent radio presence, and toured the US, the UK and Europe. His audience now expanded significantly and included a much higher percentage of whites than it had previously.

He made two appearances in films in 1934: Mae West’s Belle of the Nineties, and Earl Carroll’s Murder at the Vanities. The Hit Parade followed in 1937. In 1941 his first musical theatre piece Jump for Joy was produced in L.A. The same year he had a charting hit with Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train”, one of the most iconic songs of the decade. Then came more films like Birth of the Blues (1941), Reveille with Beverly (1943) and Cabin in the Sky (1943).

In 1943 he composed Brown, Black and Beige, an ambition long form musicwork about African American history. Increasingly such Gershwinesque long form works would be a major staple of his output. In 1946, his book musical Beggar’s Holiday was directed by Nicholas Ray on Broadway. In 1949 he appeared in the film Symphony in in Swing. In 1950, his longform work Harlem emerged.

By the ’50s Ellington was dipping in popularity as the big band sound receded, and be bop and rock and roll began to capture the imaginations of younger people. But he began a comeback in 1956 when he performed at the Newport Jazz festival and an album of the performance was released. The following year he attempted an ambitious made-for-tv concert called A Dream is a Woman. Next he wrote the soundtracks for the films Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Paris Blues (1961). In 1966, he did the soundtrack for the Frank Sinatra movie Assault on a Queen and the Broadway show Pousse Cafe. He did two TV specials in 1967, and in 1969 the soundtrack for the topical film Change of Mind. 

This abbreviated account focuses necessarily on theatre and film, our usual wheelhouse, and leaves out oceans of information about his record albums, concerts and compositions (he wrote 1,000 pieces of music). After he died in 1974, he got a major revival in the form of the Broadway show Sophisticated Ladies which ran nearly two years, 1981 to 1983.

I got the thrill of my life in the late ’90s when British neo-music hall star Earl Okin, brought Duke’s sister (and director of his estate) Ruth Ellington to come see a performance of my American Vaudeville Theatre show on the Lower East Side. She only lived another half dozen years after that. It was one of the very few times the new variety scene enjoyed a proper brush with the classic era and it made us feel blessed.