This Day in History: April 29th

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The Originator of Big Bands, Duke Ellington, Was Born

Renowned jazz musician and pianist, Duke Ellington was born on April 29, 1899, in Washington, D.C. Ellington discovered his penchant for music at the young age of seven and he began studying the piano.

Born Edward Kennedy Ellington, the musician was raised in a middle-class neighborhood by talented parents that also supported his interest in fine arts. He received the nickname “Duke” early on in life for his gentleman-like nature.

He studied art during his high-school years and was even awarded a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. He did not accept the offer; rather, after being inspired by ragtime performers he’d seen, Ellington began to perform professionally by age 17.

After deciding to become a professional musician, Ellington started making a name for himself by performing in Broadway nightclubs as the bandleader of a sextet in the 1920s. Ellington was known for his performances at the Cotton Club in Harlem, where he had several residencies.

The residencies prompted him to enlarge his band to 14 musicians and to expand his compositional scope. When Ellington selected members for his band, he looked for individuals who were experienced and expressive. With their talent, Ellington’s bands were able to make hundreds of recordings, go on tours and make radio and film appearances. 

The Ellington band toured Europe often after World War II and performed in Asia, West Africa, South America, Australia and North America. The Ellington band was unique because several musicians stayed with him for decades despite the hectic travel schedule. 

By the 1940s Ellington’s career was at a highpoint due to recording hits including “Concerto for Cootie,” and his faster paced showpieces, “Cotton Tail” and “Ko-Ko.” He was known for his legendary jazz compositions but he managed to evolve as a musician as well.

Ellington did not limit himself to the realm of jazz, and he wrote pop songs such as “Sophisticated Lady,” “Rocks in My Bed,” and “Satin Doll.” 

The big-band originator and jazz icon is often referred to as the greatest American composer.

“Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered,” were Duke Ellington’s last words and they embodied who he was and what he had accomplished in his half-century career.

Ellington died on May 24, 1974 and more than 12,000 people attended his funeral service. 

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