DukeEllington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974) was an American composer, pianist and leader of a jazz orchestra….which he led from 1923 until his death over a career spanning more than fifty years. Although Duke was born in Washington, D.C….he lived in New York City from the mid-1920’s until his death….while gaining a national profile through his orchestra’s appearances at the Cotton Club in Harlem….while becoming so well known that he and his orchestra toured in Europe in the 1930’s.
Although Duke Ellington is widely considered to have been a pivotal figure in the history of jazz….Duke embraced the phrase “beyond category” as a liberating principle….and referred to his music as part of the more general category of American Music rather than to a musical genre such as jazz…..and some of the jazz musicians who were members of Ellington’s orchestra….such as saxophonist Johnny Hodges….are considered to be among the best players in the history….as Ellington melded them into the best-known orchestral unit in the history of jazz….while some members stayed with the orchestra for several decades.
A master at writing miniatures for the three-minute 78 rpm recording format….Ellington wrote more than one thousand compositions….as his extensive body of work is the largest recorded personal jazz legacy ….with many of his pieces having become standards….plus, Duke also recorded songs written by his bandsmen…for example…. Juan Tizol’s “Caravan”, and “Perdido”….which brought a Spanish touch to big band jazz.
In the early 1940’s….Duke Ellington began a nearly thirty-year collaboration with composer-arranger-pianist Billy Strayhorn….whom Duke called his writing and arranging companion…..and with Strayhorn…. he composed many extended compositions, or suites, as well as additional short pieces…..then following an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1956…. Ellington and his orchestra enjoyed a major revival and embarked on world tours….as Duke Ellington recorded for most American record companies of his era….performed in several films….while scoring several films….and composed a handful of stage musicals. Ellington was noted for his inventive use of the orchestra, or big band….and for his eloquence and charisma. His reputation continued to rise after he died….and he was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize Special Award for music in 1999.