The Harlem Renaissance: Duke Ellington

by Joseph Dugan, originally published on

On April 29, 1899, Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington D.C.. Both of his parents were musicians, and so Ellington began his piano studies at the age of seven. Due to his easygoing nature, his friends began calling him “Duke.”

Ellington’s early career was defined by his being a painter. He did this to make money, but also involved his music. After he painted a sign for an event, he would ask if they had music. If not, he would offer his services as a pianist.

In 1917, Ellington formed “The Duke’s Serenaders.” The band consisted of Ellington, Otto Hardwick (bass/sax), Arthur Whetsol (trumpet), Elmer Snowden (banjo), and Sonny Greer (drums). They played gigs around the D.C. area. Eventually, Wilber Sweatman offered Greer a job in New York City and Ellington went with him, eventually settling in Harlem.

New York

In 1926, Ellington met Irving Mills, an agent and publisher who had worked with Hoagy Carmichael, Dorothy Fields, and Harold Arien. He signed with Mills, later recording with multiple record labels.

In 1927, King Oliver turned down a regular booking at the Cotton Club. This opened the door for Ellington as an artist. He increased his band to eleven people, meeting the Club’s requirements. He began a weekly radio broadcast, increasing his exposure, especially to the white and wealthy clients of the Cotton Club.

Bubbler Miley was a trumpeter who played with Ellington and his Orchestra for only a short time, but had immense influence. He changed the sound of the orchestra from a sweet dance style to what later became “Jungle Style.” In late 1927, Ellington and his Orchestra recorded “Creole Love Call,” written by Miley, with Adelaide Hall singing. Miley was an alcoholic, so he left the band, but his replacement, Cootie Williams, was heavily influenced by Miley.

As the 1920’s and the Harlem Renaissance continued, Ellington and his Orchestra became famous in Harlem, increasing their exposure to African-American audiences.

After the Renaissance

While the Great Depression gripped the world, Ellington and his Orchestra gained a following internationally. In 1933 and 1934, they visited Europe, finally reaching their European fans. In the later 1930’s, he left Mills and signed with the William Morris Agency. Ellington went on another successful European tour, but was overshadowed by the looming World War.

Post-War Life

In 1956, Ellington played at the Newport Jazz Festival, reviving his career. This concert made international headlines, leading to a Time magazine cover, one of only five jazz musician covers. It would also lead to the best selling LP of his career.

Influence and Awards

In 1965, Ellington was on the short list for the Pulitzer Prize in music, but no award was given that year. In 1999, he posthumously received a special Pulitzer Prize “in recognition of his musical genius.”

Ellington received many other accolades: star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (1960), Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1966), Presidential Medal of Freedom (1969), the highest award a civilian can receive in the U.S., an Honorary PhD from the Berklee College of Music (1971),and the Legion of Honor (1973), the highest award a civilian can receive in France.

Percy Grainger, an Australian composer and staunch supporter of Ellington, wrote, “The three greatest composers who ever lived are Bach, Delius, and Duke Ellington. Unfortunately Bach is dead, Delius is very will but we we are happy to have with us today The Duke.”

For those interested in hearing the music of Duke Ellington, the New England Conservatory is putting on a concert on October 15 titled “Reminiscing in Tempo: Music of Duke Ellington.”

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