Ellington was born into a middle-class black Washington family. His father was a butler in the White House and had the means to provide his son with a solid education and cultural opportunities, including piano lessons. For a brief period after winning a high school poster designing contest, Ellington ran his own sign-making business. However, he soon gave up commercial art to play piano in Washington clubs, then in 1923 moved to New York where he became leader of a small combo. In the late 1920s his band began a five-year stint at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, which established him as a pianist, composer, and arranger of genius and originality. Recordings and international tours over the next decades spread the reputation of Ellington’s band and at his death in 1974 he was widely recognized as perhaps the most versatile and accomplished creative force in the history of jazz. His many honors include presidential medals, honorary degrees, and keys to many cities all over the world. He earned the nickname “Duke” early in life because of his personal refinement and elegance.
Among the sources of Ellington’s music are the blues, the “hot” style of solo improvisation, and images of urban life (“Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Harlem Air-Shaft”). His compositions have been estimated at six thousand, including popular songs, instrumental pieces, film scores, musical comedies, ballets, and an opera. He was the first jazz composer to enlarge the scope of jazz composition, extending the length of individual works and employing devices of thematic treatment associated with the Western classical tradition. In the last decade of his life he devoted himself especially to writing sacred music, a natural expression of his deep religious faith. Although he was an extraordinary pianist, Ellington generally gave himself only a modest role in his music, commenting that “my instrument is not the piano, it’s the orchestra.” Indeed, his compositions characteristically feature other members of his band. These included many of the best musicians of the time, and Ellington’s arrangements and orchestrations were always heavily influenced by their personalities. As the membership of the band changed, so did Ellington’s style so that many of his works have been recorded in quite different interpretations.