7 Things You Might Not Know About Duke Ellington

To celebrate Duke Ellington Day, jazz author and historian Scott Yanow reviews some interesting facts about the jazz legend.
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To celebrate Duke Ellington Day, jazz author and historian Scott Yanow reviews some interesting facts about the jazz legend.
Duke Ellington Photo

The Duke Ellington Orchestra performs 'Take the A Train' with singer Bette Roche in the film Reveille with Beverly, January 1943. (Photo: Bettmann / Getty Images)

To say that Duke Ellington (April 29, 1899 - May 24, 1974) had a very productive and illustrious career would be a major understatement. As a composer, arranger, pianist and bandleader, he was a major force for nearly 50 years (1926-74), creating innovations in each area. He did all of that while constantly touring with his orchestra which, despite major changes in the music world, never broke up during his lifetime.

Ellington has been profiled in many books through the years and he was a national name by the early 1930s, but there are some aspects of his life and career that are not as well-known as his performances and recordings.

1) When Duke Ellington’s 70th birthday was celebrated by a historic reception and a jam session hosted by Richard Nixon in 1969, he was not the first Ellington to appear at the White House. His father, James Edward Ellington, in addition to his work as a butler, driver, caretaker and handyman for a prominent Washington D.C. doctor, worked as a part-time butler on several occasions during the Warren G. Harding administration in the early 1920s. If he had still been alive in 1969, James Ellington could have taken his son on a knowledgeable tour of the president’s residence.

Duke Ellington Richard Nixon Photo

Duke Ellington receives the the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Richard M. Nixon, April 24, 1969. (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration - Archival Research Catalog, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons).

2) While Edward Kennedy Ellington was given the nickname of Duke early in life due to his suave nature and classy manners, he was also called “Dumpy” by some of his sidemen due to his eating habits. Ellington always did his best to look good but he had a potentially huge appetite that led trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton to once say, “He’s a genius, all right, but Jesus how he eats!” Ellington found that when he went on a diet consisting of nothing but steak, hot water, grapefruit juice and coffee, he could lose weight very quickly. During periods when he was eating excessively (he always loved good food), Ellington knew just the right clothes to wear that could keep him looking slim no matter what his weight.

3) Jazz’s evolution went so quick during 1920-70 that if a band stood still musically for more than five years, it would fall behind the times and sound dated. Most ensembles of the 1920s were largely obsolete by the swing era of the 1930s and nearly all of the swing bands fell out of favor by the late 1940s when bebop had become the mainstream. However, Duke Ellington bucked all of the trends and, whether it was 1926, 1943 or 1956 or 1973, his orchestra ranked among the top five in the modern jazz scene of the era. No other ensemble sounded so fresh, relevant and groundbreaking for such a long period of time. Ellington did this by never fitting into a restrictive category or chasing musical fads. He simply created the music that he believed in, regularly rearranging his most popular numbers so “Mood Indigo,” “Take The ‘A’ Train” and “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” still sounded modern decades after they were composed.

4) In the 1920s, most jazz pianists were stride players who kept time by striding between bass notes and chords with their left hand while their right played melodic variations. Duke Ellington, who was inspired by Willie “the Lion” Smith and James P. Johnson, became a very capable stride pianist. But unlike all of his contemporaries (other than Mary Lou Williams), Ellington continually modernized his playing during the decades that followed, becoming an influence on Thelonious Monk in the 1940s. By the early 1970s, his percussive style, which made creative use of space and included plenty of dissonant chords, could pass for the playing of a 30-year old rather than one who was in his seventies.

5) Up until the birth of the Lp in the late 1940s, nearly all jazz recordings were released on 78s which only held around three minutes of music per side. Occasionally a special 12-inch 78 was released that could contain up to five minutes although most bands used the extra time to play medleys of songs. Duke Ellington was among the very first to compose and record non-classical music that took up several sides of a 78. While his first extended recording was a two-sided version of “Tiger Rag” in 1929 that was essentially a jam session, 1931’s “Creole Rhapsody” (recorded in two very different versions) and 1935’s four-part “Reminiscing In Tempo” were innovative in their development of themes over a longer period of time than three minutes. In the 1940s Ellington’s suites were often documented on 78s, although his “Black, Brown and Beige,” since it ran for close to an hour, was greatly condensed when he documented it as a four-part 12-minute suite. Even with Duke’s popularity, it was doubtful that many of his fans would have wanted to buy ten 78s just to hear the suite.

Billie Holiday: Jazz composer Duke Ellington sits with Billie Holiday and pianist and   music critic Leonard Feather in this 1945 photo. Holiday starred in a   short film with Ellington in 1935 and toured Europe with Feather in   1954.

Duke Ellington sits with Billie Holiday and pianist and music critic Leonard Feather in this 1945 photo. Holiday starred in a short film with Ellington in 1935 and toured Europe with Feather in 1954. (Photo: Getty Images)

6) Duke Ellington was among the very first African-American musicians to celebrate his race and proudly use the word “black” in many of his song titles rather than stick to stereotypes or play it safe. Among the pieces that he wrote and recorded were “Creole Love Call (1927),”Black And Tan Fantasy,” “Black Beauty” (1928), “When A Black Man’s Blue” (1930), “Black Butterfly” (1936) and his monumental “Black, Brown and Beige” suite (1943). In addition, in all of his film appearances, starting with the 1929 short Black and Tan, Ellington and his musicians looked and acted like distinguished artists rather than clowns or weak comedy relief.

7) While Duke Ellington composed thousands of songs in his career covering a wide range of music and he made hundreds of albums, he never really recorded his earliest composition, “Soda Fountain Rag” which he wrote in 1914. Ellington only performed it on very rare occasions (there are obscure concert versions from 1937, 1957 and 1964). In his countless number of recording sessions, Ellington never got around to officially documenting his first song.