If you're anything like me, you are 5'10" tall, left-handed, and named Jeff. You also watched the epic Ken Burns documentary Jazz with a somewhat jaundiced eye (although in my case, it was just some stray popcorn butter on my glasses), thinking that perhaps Burns tended to fawn over certain personalities while leaving other important figures barely mentioned. Throughout the twenty-odd hours of the documentary, two names cropped up more than any others; Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
Now, we've already devoted two months to deciding that perhaps Armstrong was worthy of much of the praise he received from Jazz (with the exception of the claims of Louis' supernatural ability to sugar-cure hams using only his mind). But when I was going over my thoughts on the whole thing, I found myself doubting Ellington's hallowed place in jazz. Admittedly, I associated most of his work with big band music, which I tend to dismiss as little more than jazzified pop. Then I actually explored some more definitive samples of the Duke's work, and found that The Searchers and True Grit were two of my all-time favorite movies. Once I sobered up, though, I listened to a more representative array of Ellington's work and came away a changed man.
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, D.C., on April 29, 1899, to a butler (William Butler Yeats? Fat chance) and his wife (whose wife?), Daisy. Though middle class, Ellington was raised as though he were royalty. This may be where he acquired the nickname Duke, though I had already planned on a John Wayne gag later on that I craftily began setting up in the previous paragraph. I guess that's not going to happen now, but we still have the Yeats joke to keep us going through these tough times.
Ellington began playing piano very early (around 5:30 AM), and you would expect that he was an immediate prodigy. This was not the case, however, and in fact he never so much as touched a piano again for the rest of his life.
That couldn't be right. I'm sorry, I was thinking of John Wayne again. Anyway.
Ellington in fact did receive piano lessons at a young age and didn't quite take to the instrument. For one thing, the piano was not portable. Young Duke always had an eye for the ladies, and wanted something he could carry around with him for impromptu serenades. Wanting to set himself apart from all the other young would-be wandering minstrels, though, Duke sought something other than just the traditional guitar or saxophone. However, when the banjo proved to be less than a chick magnet and the accordion almost got him arrested for violating D.C.'s Lady of Spain ordinances (aimed at eradicating the spread of accordion- and concertina-related crimes against humanity), Duke went back to the piano to give it another shot.
Very soon, Duke was building a reputation for himself around D.C. as a stride-influenced pianist with a variety of local and regional groups. Teaming up with drummer Sonny Greer, first as a two-man beach volleyball combo and then playing with fellow Washingtonians Arthur Whetsol and Otto Hardwicke, Ellington's renown grew until he finally found himself in New York City. First with Elmer Snowden (also from Washington), then with the inevitable Duke Ellington and His Washingtonians, he soon landed himself a plum long-term engagement at the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem. Via nationwide radio broadcasts, Duke soon garnered a widespread following that allowed him to take his burgeoning ensemble out on the road where they went 7-4-1 (tying Detroit 3-3 in overtime) before returning home to defeat the Rangers 4-2.
More and more, Ellington was honing his compositional skills. The company of exceptional musicians, from Bubber Miley to Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton (and even briefly Sidney Bechet), added new dimensions to his writing. Duke was able to capture the essence of a great player in his work, so that it seemed to have been written personally for that musician. By bringing out the best in his players by composing to their strengths, Ellington's work took on a more vivid dimension than any of his contemporaries. To a certain degree, he legitimized jazz as a compositional form without compromising the individual freedom that brilliant innovators like Armstrong had already brought to the music. His compositional skills also helped him introduce jazz into the accepted realms of popular culture, writing for stage and screen as well as composing a commissioned tune for President Calvin Coolidge to hum softly to himself on long winter evenings.