A Brief Ellington Biography

Edward Kennedy Ellington born in Washington, D.C.

Ellington takes piano lessons from Miss Clinkscales

Schoolmates start calling Ellington "Duke"



Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born April 29, 1899 to solid middle class parents in Washington, D.C. This most unexceptional sentence begins a most exceptional life. By the time Duke Ellington died on May 24, 1974 at age 75, he had created a body of music so rich and varied that he is unquestionably one of the greatest forces in the history of music. If you are new to Ellington, wondering where to start exploring his vast output, read on. This little essay is especially for you. The first thing that I need to tell you is that Ellington's music is timeless. It doesn't matter if you come to Ellington as a fan of modern jazz like John Coltrane and Miles Davis, as a fan of baroque and classical music, or if you come to Ellington as a fan of rock and blues. You will find stuff here that you will like.

Ellington's achievement is truly staggering - so much so that none of the superlatives usually reserved for musical giants are broad enough to describe Ellington. Notice that, a sentence or two ago, I was reduced to describing Ellington as one of the greatest "forces" in the history of music. "Forces?" Well, none of the standard terms work.

I could have said that Ellington was a great composer. He wrote thousands of works (the exact number is not yet known, but we have top people in Washington working on it). He wrote popular songs, art songs, a wide variety of instrumentals, suites, symphonic works, movie and tv scores, and music for ballet - all of a very high quality. As far as I can figure, only J.S. Bach (one of my other musical heros) produced a body of work as large and varied as Duke Ellington. But to say merely that Ellington was a great composer, ignores his achievement as a musician.

I could have said that Ellington was a great musician. He was a pianist of great imagination and sensitivity. Duke sounded like nobody else and nobody else ever sounded like Duke. But to say merely that Ellington was a great musician, ignores his achievement as an orchestra leader.

I could have said that Ellington was a great orchestra leader. Ellington's orchestra contained some of the greatest names in music: Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Billy Strayhorn, Barney Bigard, Paul Gonsalves, Cootie Williams, Al Sears, Jimmie Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Bubber Miley, and many others. Ellington's orchestra was a very stable organization. Many musicians stayed in the orchestra for decades. Duke Ellington & His Orchestra also left a remarkably large recorded legacy on 78s, 45s, LPs, and CDs. Ellington was acutely aware of the possibilities of recordings and used recordings to preserve his music for posterity (that's us!) the same way that classical composers used scores to preserve their music.

Composer, musician, orchestra leader - Ellington combined these three careers more sucessfully than anyone in the history of music. But there's more! Ellington was also, as Stanley Crouch pointed out, his own patron. Ellington used the monies he received from concerts, recordings, and compositions to keep his orchestra together for more than 50 years. The only orchestra devoted to the music of a single composer with a longer life was the orchestra that Count Esterhazy maintained for Franz Josef Haydn for some 57 years.

Finally, Ellington accomplished all of this with grace, dignity, and humor. Ellington had an unshakable faith in God and a firm belief in himself. He got these from his mother.


Daisy Ellington, born in Washington, D.C. in 1879, was a beautiful and accomplished woman. She lavished attention on her son Edward, often saying to him, "Edward, you are blessed." Ellington grew up believing this. Duke's father, J.E. Ellington, worked in the food industry (even at the White House!) and treated his family very well. Ellington wrote in his autobiography. "Music is My Mistress," that the "best had to be carefully examined to make sure it was good enough for my mother." From his father, Ellington got his easy-going style, his ostentatious manners, and his way with women.