Credited by many with bringing the world of "black jazz" to the mainstream, Duke Ellington had one of the most prolific and far reaching careers in jazz. His bands traveled the world communicating that most American of sounds, jazz. Originally however, Ellington wouldn't even leave the US because of a childhood accident that left him with a continual fear of the ocean. In this way, nothing came easily for the jazz master, since he grew up in a harshly segregated community in Washington, DC. His father worked in the government print offices during the day and worked functions of D.C.'s social elite as a butler at night.
Because of the unique connections the family developed as a result of his father's night job, Duke often said that he had lived "first class." One of Ellington's first gigs was working in the same business as his father, essentially painting signs and playing with bands in his spare time. After a few years taking his father's piano to far off venues for gigs, Duke began to claim some notoriety and after a few record deals, he was on his way to New York.
In 1927, Ellington made his first performance at the Cotton Club in Harlem, where he found his element, winning the collective ear of the music community by the time he left for his first tour abroad.
The first European tour (1933) laid the groundwork for his first critical acclaim on the home front. Called a "prophet without honor in his own country," while on tour, the mainstream American audience began to take him seriously for the first time. Blooming into a greater audience, Duke picked up the nuances of swing. In the same step, many would say that after playing with it a bit, he put it right back down again. Saying that swing had become "stagnant," bringing nothing new in the progression and evolution that had always characterized jazz in the past. As he would continue to do throughout his life, Duke picked up what he liked and left the rest behind, in true jazz fashion. Of his own band Duke said, "We are not interested primarily in the playing of jazz or writing music, but in producing musically a genuine contribution from our race."
Race was a palpable issue that ran through every work Ellington produced. There was no way to escape this in a segregated society that forced jazz musicians to perform in a certain segment of society and stick to those social norms indefinitely. Unable or unwilling to cement himself to the rut demanded by the mainstream community, he developed his own following and did things his way. His work "Black, Brown and Beige," first performed at Carnegie Hall in 1943, hit upon his dissatisfaction with convention, and gave him the opportunity to forge a bridge between the mainstream classical community and the traditional jazz audience. The result, as with any attempt at shaking convention, resulted in mixed reviews, but paved the way for further interpretation in the future.
Not only a talented musician and pioneering spirit, most importantly, Ellington was a band leader and composer like no other. To play with Duke was to become a part of the living organism that was his band. His cohort in creation, Billy Strayhorn, once called Duke's ability to conceive compositions for the band members themselves, the "Ellington Effect." The "Effect" was in for much of Duke's career, and it was Ellington's ability to splice personalities and abilities that was the key to his success. This is evident in a number of compositions that now frequent the term "classics of jazz," from "Mood Indigo" to "Take the 'A' Train" and "Caravan."
Many of Ellington's compositions deserve attention, and with as prolific career as he had, it is impossible to say listen to them all, although you should. Some of Duke's favorites were published in an article in Down Beat (Nov. 1952) and include:
Birmingham Breakdown (1927)
Old Man Blues (1930)
Creole Rhapsody (1931)
Reminiscing in Tempo (1935)
Showboat Shuffle (1935)
Harmony in Harlem (1937)
I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart (1938)
Something To Live For (1939)
Country Gal (1939)
The Brownskin Gal (1941)
Down Beat also did a pole of celebrities for their favorite Ellington tracks which included:
All Too Soon
Take the "A" Train
Jack the Bear
Ring Dem Bells
I Got It Bad
Black & Tan Fantasy
The Hawk Talks
East St. Louis Toodle-Oo
Tucker, Mark; The Duke Ellington Reader, Oxford University Press, NY,NY, 1993
Ellington, Mercer ; Duke Ellington in Person: An Intimate Memoir, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Mass., 1978
Text by J. David Powell
UNC Jazz Band performs Duke Ellington's The Queens Suite, III Le Sucrier Velour
NCJRO performs Duke Ellington's and Irving Mills' Ring Dem Bells
Mark Tucker featured on piano in the NCJRO performance of Duke Ellington's The Clothed Woman