Life of A Pioneer
Born in Washington D.C. in 1899, he started piano lessons when he was a boy, by the age of seventeen, he played professionally. In 1923, he moved to New York City where he played in small nightclubs, theaters, and on the radio, later played at one of the most popular nightclubs of the time in Harlem, The Cotton Club. Lead his orchestra for more than fifty years. Duke Ellington unarguably, was one of the greatest jazz composers that had ever lived.
Born in Washington D.C. on April 29, 1899, Edward Kennedy Ellington’s (net #6) childhood was unusually happy and carefree for an African American child growing up in the early 1900’s (Frankl, 17). Ellington, at first, really wanted to play baseball, but a close encounter with a ball scared his mother which lead to his piano lessons. His mother simply said that it was safer (Frankl, 25). Piano lessons didn’t last, Ellington didn’t like to be taught things. Later in his youth, he would take up the art again, only this time he stuck to it. Ellington said he realized that "When you were playing piano there was always a pretty girl standing down at the bass clef end of the piano (net #3)." "Duke" came from one of his friends who called him that because of his elegance and charm, the name stayed with him for the rest of his life (net #3).
Ellington’s professional music career began when he was seventeen. He went to the pool halls in the D.C. area and played piano there. Ellington didn’t play at the pool halls for the money, he played there because of the other musicians. Ellington constantly wanted to improve his own music, so he would listen to the musicians and learn their notes and lines. At times, the musicians would let Ellington stand behind them and he would watch as they glided their fingers on the keyboard. Ellington learned a great deal from the musicians. Soon, Ellington was growing tired of pool hall fame and sought better recognition. He and two of his friends formed a band named the Washingtonians. (net #8). It wasn’t long before Ellington’s band became well known in the city, every nightclub knew their name and wanted them. Ellington and the band played night after night. Once again, Ellington was searching for a higher mountain to climb. He had just heard from a friendly nightclub manager that there was a big music scene in the big apple, New York City, so the band packed their bags and headed North. There at New York, Ellington had to make a new establishment, New York didn’t know who he was yet. Soon, the band got a job playing at a nightclub in Harlem called the Kentucky Club. The place wasn’t the best but the variety of customers that it hosted was able to spread their name, Washingtonians, all over New York. Ellington’s big break came in 1927 when he landed the job of playing at the most prestigious club in the city, the executive Cotton Club (net #4). At the Cotton Club, Ellington was able to gain national fame with the help from a new invention, the radio. With the advent of the radio, the entire country was able to listen to the Washingtonians’ play. Fame wasn’t the only thing Ellington gained, with the financial success and support, Ellington was able to hire additional musicians and to pursue his ultimate dream as a master composer.
Ellington’s first compositions were considered to be very stiff and jerky. In 1924, Ellington’s first recordings were made, these seemed to be the recordings of a jazz musician who was headed in the wrong direction and some even did not consider him to be a jazz musician at all, but they were an inauspicious beginning for some major talent. Ellington’s music began to show the depth and sophistication he was famous for. His ideas of harmony, melody, orchestral color, and form came from the music around him. Ellington would listen to the music of the time and end up turning them into his own jazz style.
When he first started writing music, he would devise a melody on the piano and from there assign a line to a different instrument in his