Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born on April 29th, 1899, in Washington, D.C. When Edward was young, playing the piano was always a chore for him. He played hooky from playing the piano a lot. One time Edward was supposed to be practicing piano for a church concert. One of his many cousins saw what he was doing and offered for Edward to play baseball with them. Edward knew his parents would worry about where he was, but he decided to play anyway. Nevertheless, his performance at the church concert was beautiful. Edward's parents, who played the piano, were so proud to have such a musician in their midst!
Edward's dad was a blueprint maker for the U.S. Navy. He was also employed as a butler at the White House. He was a very friendly and agreeable man, and he was never worrisome. On the other hand, Edward's mother was very worrisome. She was quite a religious, quiet, and serious woman. Edward's mother taught him to say his prayers, read the Bible, and to go to church on Sundays and holy days.
When Edward began Armstrong High School in February, 1914, everybody started calling him Duke because of his neat clothes and his courteousness. Duke attended s in music, but he still had to keep on doing private lessons. A lot of Duke Ellington's friends also played instruments. Edna Thompson played the piano, Otto Hardwicke studied the bass fiddle, and Arthur Whetsol was capable of playing the cornet. Not too long later, music became number one in Duke's list of important things. He enjoyed playing ragtime music the most in his spare time.
Around the beginning of summer, 1914, Duke got a sheet of music for James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout" that was compatible with a player piano, which is a piano that plays by itself once the switch is in the on position. Duke listened to "Carolina Shout" hour after hour, day by day, until one day Duke tried composing a ragtime piece, or "shout" of his own. After weeks of work, Ellington composed his first musical composition. Weeks later, Duke got a job at the soda fountain in the Poodle Dog Café. When Duke got this job he named his composition "Soda Fountain Rag."
Duke couldn't decide whether he wanted to become a musician or an artist. After he listened to everyone that he asked he decided to stay with music. He also decided to drop out of high school.
Duke and his friends formed a jazz band called the Washingtonians. Jazz music was new back then, so they probably weren't the only ones getting used to it.
Duke's little sister had been born in 1915 when Duke was sixteen.
In 1918, Duke married Edna Thompson, and then they moved into an apartment that wasn't too far from where Duke Ellington's parents lived.
One night Duke and his band went to the Howard Theater to listen to a performance of another band. Duke's Washingtonians made friends with the lead singer, Sonny Greer. When the concert ended, Sonny came out and Duke invited him to a jam session. Sonny accepted, and after the session had ended Greer agreed to join them.
One day the Washingtonians got a teIegram to go to New York, New York. A few days after that, they were on a train heading to Harlem. While visiting Harlem, the Washingtonians played at various nightclubs. Their fame didn't last that long. Not too long after this happened, Duke, Otto, and Sonny were out on the streets looking for another place to play. They soon became penniless and famished. Duke refused to give up, and did not want to go back home to Washington D.C. as a failure. Right now it seemed like the only choice!
He knew he had to start from scratch and go back to New York if he wanted his dreams to come true. The following spring he got a telegram saying that a job offer was opened in New York, so Duke and his pals got on a train heading towards New York. There were five people in the Washingtonians now: Edward "Duke" Ellington, Otto Hardwicke, Sonny Greer, Arthur Whetsol, and Elmer Snowden. When the Washingtonians got to New York, it once again was a failure for them. After many weeks of disappointment, the Washingtonians finally got a job. Edna Ellington left Washington D.C. and came to New York City to join Duke.
Duke was a great band leader. If any of the Washingtonians had any suggestions, he would listen.
One day, a well-known musicians' agent named Irving Mills dropped in at the Kentucky Club to hear the Washingtonians. He was utterly impressed, so a few days later Irving came to Duke with a contract. It was to form a company called Ellington Inc. Irving would be Duke's agent, and he would also handle all of Duke's business matters. Duke agreed and signed the contract.
Mills kept his vow. He set up recording sessions and he even attracted new band members! The band even toured Europe and the Southern United States. They used their own private train for the south due to racial prejudice.
During one of his tours, something bothered Duke. He was no longer happy with Mills. Irving had helped the band a lot, but lately Irving had become so busy that the band no longer received his attention, so Duke ended his partnership with Irving. Not long after that Duke got a new agent, William Morris.
During his southern tour Duke composed "Take the A-Train," which became the band's theme song, and "New World A-Comin'. "
As the years flew by Duke started to worry about his health. He did not eat any more huge meals. He tried to keep himself healthy and in shape.
On April 29th, 1969, Duke's birthday, there was a party at the White House. Duke was the guest of honor, and boy, he sure was honored! Duke received a special Medal of Freedom from President Richard Millhouse Nixon, too.
Before passing away on May 24, 1974, Duke composed one last song: "Music is my Mistress." Perhaps our quest for knowledge of Edward "Duke" Kennedy Ellington is best ended with the exact words from his medal:
PRESENTED IN APPRECIATION TO
EDWARD KENNEDY ELLINGTON, KNOWN AS DUKE –
"MUSICIAN OF EVERY YEAR" –
DISTINGUISHED COMPOSER AND WORLDWIDE
AMBASSADOR OF GOOD WILL…