Duke Ellington (1899-1974) grew up in Washington, D.C. during one of the most difficult periods for African-Americans. Social and political conditions for blacks were worsening in not only the South, but also the North. Many blacks were migrating from the South to the North hoping for a better life. In 1896, The United States Supreme Court declared racial segregation legal in public facilities in Plessy v. Ferguson. In Washington, D.C., segregation was greatly increasing. The Lincoln Memorial towered over the city as a symbol of equality, yet at its dedication in 1918, blacks had to sit in a segregated area. Despite all of these tensions, many blacks drew from the strength of the community, the vitality and the spirit of their rich culture. Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was such a person whose strong pride worked effectively against the forces of racism. He fought this battle against racial problems and tensions with ease and grace.
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 at 1217 22nd Street NW, Washington D.C. His family had strong roots in Washington. His mother, Daisy Kennedy Ellington, was born in D.C. in 1879 to a middle class family. She was a woman of great beauty and intelligence and had completed high school, rare for a black woman at the time. She instilled in her son love and confidence that would remain with him throughout his career. In return, Ellington idolized his mother. His father, James Edward Ellington, was born in North Carolina, but like many blacks had migrated to Washington searching for a better life. James Edward Ellington worked as a butler for a white physician and occasionally worked at catered events in the White House. J. E. Ellington taught his son how to be a refined young gentleman instilling in him the airs of a young aristocrat and a way with women. The family moved frequently, and from 1898 to 1921, lived in fourteen different residences in Northwest Washington, most of them located in what would later become the historic U Street District.
Around the age of seven, while at Garnet Elementary School, Ellington embarked on a formal training in music, but his musical interests had not yet manifested. In 1911, Ellington entered junior high school. He was no longer taking piano lessons, but was now showing an interest in art. For high school in 1913, Ellington choose to attend Armstrong Manual Training School to pursue commercial art. However, Ellington began to be exposed to the popular ragtime music scene by going to hear musicians in Washington. After meeting the pianist, Harvey Brooks in New Jersey, Ellington yearned to play and create music. He learned by immersing himself in musical surroundings and was particularly influenced by the many pianists that Washington had to offer, such as Louis Brown, Gertie Wells, and the "Man with a Thousand Fingers." At fourteen, in 1913, Ellington took a job as a soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Cafe on Georgia Avenue. When the piano player there was too drunk to play, Ellington's boss would put him behind the piano thus bringing about his first composition, "Soda Fountain Rag." Also in 1913, Ellington got his famous nickname from a friend Edgar McEntree who noted his aristocratic manners and called him "Duke." In high school, Ellington began playing at Senior dances and soon became the most desirable pianist at teenage parties and dances.
In the early 1900's, dancing was becoming acceptable in public. From 1912 to 1916, there was an explosion of social dance. Washington was rich with dance halls to accommodate this new trend such as Lincoln Colonnade, True Reformers Hall, Murray's Casino, and Eye Street Hall. This dance craze would have a profound effect on Ellington's music world. Much of Ellington's musical education came from outside the classroom. His teachers were the many local and national working musicians in Washington to whom Ellington went for direction. Among these Washington band leaders was Oliver "Doc" Perry, who taught Ellington how to read music. Ellington soon began filling in for Perry and other musicians in clubs and cafes in black Washington.
In February 1917, three months before graduating, Ellington left Armstrong High beginning his career as a professional musician. To earn money he used his artistic abilities by painting signs and posters during the day in a sign painting business. At night he was a musician. His first real musical jobs were playing in the ensembles of Washington band leaders, such as Louis Thomas and Russell Wooding. Through these experiences, Ellington learned what it meant to be a member of a band.
In April 1917 the death of Scott Joplin, "the King of Ragtime Writers," signified the end of the ragtime era. However, many musicians like Ellington had already migrated from ragtime "to a looser, more modern offspring then spelled variously 'jas,' 'jass,' 'jaz,' and 'jazz.'"
During World War I, Ellington got a job as a messenger at the Navy Department. Due to the war, there was an influx of government visitors in the nation's capital which, in turn, created a surge of social activities. This created a great deal of work for Washington musicians. Ellington, in particular, was busy entertaining at various social functions.
Ellington made his next move towards becoming a full professional musician in 1917 or early 1918, when he formed his own group, "The Duke's Serenaders. " They played their first date at The True Reformers Hall. True Reformers was two and a half blocks from Ellington's home and a well equipped public facility on 7th and T Streets. Ellington and other musicians, such as Elmer Snowden, would congregate on the street corner outside.
In March 1918, Ellington moved further towards becoming an independent professional. He moved out of his parents home, he bought a telephone (still considered a luxury) and he bought a listing for his Serenaders in the telephone book. This which brought him jobs outside the Black community at embassies, private mansions, and Virginia society balls. Ellington was learning to become a businessman. Nevertheless, he still maintained his sign painting business and cleverly used it to help his musical career. When customers came to him to create an advertisement for a dance, he would ask them if they needed a band and likewise, when someone wanted to hire a band for a dance, he would ask them if they needed a sign painter.
On July 2, 1918, Ellington married Edna Thompson who was from a prominent Washington family. On March 11, 1919, their son, Mercer Kennedy Ellington, was born. Ellington's career was so successful that he was able to buy a house and a car. As Ellington's popularity grew in Washington, he decided he needed more musical training. He found his neighbor Henry Grant to be just the teacher to help him. Grant was a music teacher at Dunbar High, a church choir conductor, and a member of a classical music trio. He was also the founder of the National Association of Negro Musicians and editor of a magazine, The Negro Musician. Ellington went to Grant twice a week for lessons in harmony and reading music.
In the summer of 1919, the United States experienced a period of violent interracial strife. Washington was one of two dozen American cities to experience racial violence. In July white soldiers and sailors attacked and injured dozens of unarmed black citizens. Ellington was certainly affected by the violence, but he choose to rise above the restraints placed on him because of the color of his skin. He always walked with pride, dazzling the world with his charm, manners, and elegant style. Ellington despised being placed in restrictive categories due to race.
Ellington met William "Sonny" Greer, a singing drummer from Long Branch, New Jersey, who came to Washington in 1919. In 1920, Greer became the drummer's chair in the Howard Theater Pit Band. Ellington's band began playing pre-performance supper shows at the Howard Theater. His band was now playing for black and white engagements in the 1920's. They would perform at outdoor dances in the humid summers. Many of the dances were very elaborate with exotic themes, costumes, and decorations. In Southwest Washington, dances occurred every night and could get rather wild and rowdy. There were brawls, bootleggers, and other interruptions. Once in 1921, Ellington's band was playing in Georgetown's Odd Fellows Hall when a brawl broke out and Ellington and the other band members had to quickly make their exit.
Ellington wanted to develop his own style to stand apart from his competitors. In 1921, he had the opportunity to observe one of the greatest jazz pianists from New York, James P. Johnson, who had come into town to play at the Convention Center. At one point, Ellington got up on stage with the pianist and played for him. He spent the rest of the night observing Johnson's style.
Jazz bands often competed in contests or "battles of the bands," a fun experience but also a true test of a musician's abilities. Ellington's band participated in these band battles such as in 1922, at the Lincoln Colonnade. The battle was between Doc Perry, Sam Taylor, and Ellington. These competitions were important learning experiences for Ellington who was always seeking to learn. Ellington also learned from observing other musicians who visited Washington, such as Eubie Blake, Luckey Roberts, blues singer Mamie Smith, and band leader LeRoy Smith.
Ellington was becoming very successful in D.C. and could have remained here as a band leader and booking agent, but he was full of drive and desire to continue to rise to the top. New York City was the emerging scene of performance and mass music culture where Ellington could achieve these dreams. Ellington's friend, Sonny Greer, was full of stories about the scene in New York City. In 1923, Greer was asked to come to New York. He accepted and along with him went Otto Hardwick and Duke Ellington. Ellington made the decision to the leave the comfort of his family and "the whole familiar world of his native Washington." New York City proved to be difficult as Ellington and his companions experienced poverty for the first time. Extremely disappointed with their lack of success, he and his friends returned to Washington that same year. Ellington continued his life in D.C. with ease until June 1923, when he received another opportunity for success in New York City.
In New York City, Ellington progressively grew as a pianist, band leader, and composer. His band grew to seven members and changed its name to the Washingtonians, honoring the nation's capital where it all began for him. The success of Ellington's band increased as the Washingtonians became known as one the greatest big bands of jazz. Although Ellington left Washington he never forgot about his home. He often returned here to play, such as in 1931 to celebrate the reopening of the Howard Theater.
Duke Ellington died on May 24, 1974. The world mourned the loss of one of the world's greatest jazz personalities. President Nixon paid tribute to Ellington in saying, "The wit, taste, intelligence, and elegance that Duke Ellington brought to his music have made him, in the eyes of millions of people both here and abroad, America's foremost composer. His memory will live for generations to come in the music with which he encircled his nation." The life and work of Ellington are a testimony to the man as an artist, and to the verve of U Street culture.
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