American musical icon defined jazz big band

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Duke Ellington


"Satin Doll" was one of more than 50 top hits

Duke Ellington was one of the most important creative forces in the music of the twentieth century. His influence on classical music, popular music, and, of course, jazz, simply cannot be overstated.

He was born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 1899, into a middle class black family. His father was a butler in a wealthy household, and he is said to have sometimes worked at White House affairs. Ellington originally had ambitions of becoming a painter, but he became interested in music in his early teens and learned James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout" from a piano roll. Soon he was part of a small jazz band in Washington.

In 1923 he moved to New York and early in 1924 he became the leader of his band. Soon he was recording, and in 1927 Ellington's band was hired to play regularly at the Cotton Club, where he stayed for five years. Cotton Club performances were broadcast almost nightly, and by 1930 Ellington and his band were famous. And even as early as this, Ellington was beginning to be recognized as an important serious composer.

In 1931, he was invited to visit the White House, and in 1933 his band made its first European tour, a huge triumph. In the years that followed, Ellington continued to grow musically, and the quality of his band continued to improve, reaching what many consider to be a peak from 1939 through the early 1940s.

After the end of World War II, big bands went out of fashion, and, like other bands, Ellington's band suffered financially. Nevertheless, Ellington continued to keep the band together through all the years that followed, subsidizing the band from his royalties as a composer.

Ellington was primarily an instrumental composer, and most of his songs were originally written as instrumental pieces, with words tacked on at a later date. Nevertheless, many of them remain remarkable as songs. Among his best-known songs are "Sophisticated Lady" (1933, lyric by Mitchell Parish), "In A Sentimental Mood" (1935, lyric by Manny Kurtz, with artistically meaningless co-credit given in this, as in many other songs, to publisher Irving Mills), "Prelude To A Kiss" (1938, lyric by Irving Gordon), "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart" (1938, lyric by Henry Nemo), "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)" (1941, lyric by Paul Francis Webster), "Don't Get Around Much Any More" (1942, lyric by Bob Russell), "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" (1943, lyric by Bob Russell), "I Didn't Know About You" (1944, lyric by Bob Russell), and "Satin Doll" (1958, written with Billy Strayhorn, lyric by Johnny Mercer).

Duke Ellington died in New York on May 24, 1974.

Brought American jazz to world audiences over five decades of world tours