Edward Kennedy "DUKE" Ellington
Ellington was born April 29, 1899, and grew up in a
middle-class environment in Washington, D.C. He began playing at seven and gravitated to
the ragtime and stride styles. He came to New York with Elmer Snowden's Washingtonians,
and soon assumed leadership when Snowden departed. This left Ellington with a charter
group of players who would remain with him for years and follow him to the top: Sonny
Greer, Otto Hardwick, Arthur Whetsol and Fred Guy. Before the end of the '20s, Harry
Carney, Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams had joined, each of whom would still be with
Ellington in the 1960s.
Ellington's formative years cover 1924 to about 1935, when the
various plunger devices were integrated into an ensemble structure of varied combinations
and blends. The rhythm section that began as a choppy, chugging time-keeping tool smoothed
out as bass and guitar replaced tuba and banjo. Lawrence Brown brought a unique trombone
sound to the band. The period also yielded a combination of Ellington staples
("Rockin' In Rhythm," "Black And Tan Fantasy," "Creole Love
Call") that would remain the repertoire until the end.
The mature period begins in the mid-'30s and works up to what
many regard as the band's peak years from 1940-'45, during which time bassist Jimmy
Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster became confirmed Ellingtonians. Essentials of
the period include "Ko Ko," "Concerto For Cootie," "Jack The
Bear," "Cotton Tail," "Harlem Airshaft" and "Take The A
Train," all recorded for Victor. This period of intense creativity extends into
Ellington's most ambitious foray into extended composition, the epic "Black, Brown
And Beige," introduced in 1943. After the war the '40s sound survived, but the
compositional intensity petered out until, by the end of the decade, Ellington lost much
of his distinctive voices.
The modern period, or the Newport Era, if your prefer, begins
around 1951 when Sonny Greer was replaced on drums by Louis Bellson and the band suddenly
sprang to life with an astonishing new rhythmic alertness and vitality. Bellson stayed for
about three years, ultimately to be replaced by Sam Woodyard. But the rhythmic buoyancy of
the band was forever set on a modern track and inspired subtle improvements in the band's
overall precision and musicianship. By the time Johnny Hodges returned after a five-year
absence, Ellington was reinvigorated and ready to charge forward.
The historic performance of "Diminuendo And Crescendo In
Blue" at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 opened a whole new era of prosperity for
Ellington, who responded a revived commitment to composition and produced a succession of
stimulating works, from "Such Sweet Thunder" (1957) to "The Far East
Duke Ellington died of cancer on May 24, 1974.