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Pinkney et al. (13) give a thorough account of the early years of the famed jazz master Duke Ellington in their book, Duke Ellington. According to the writers, the act is unquestionably among the greatest and most significant musicians of the 20th century, as shown by the enormous influence the iconic pianist and composer had on the music industry. Duke, who was born Edward Kennedy Ellington in 1899, built a renowned and prosperous orchestra that he directed until his passing 75 years later. He had a distinguished 40-year career. Washington, D.C., is where Ellington was born and reared. As Pinkney et al. (14) explains, the he would move on to New York to gather a greater audience and to relish in the company of other emerging artists. The culture in his new neighborhood was sufficiently welcoming and supportive of his growth as a performer. Ellington gained natural spotlight when he began performing at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. The authors narrate that Duke would the tour Europe with his orchestra, exponentially increasing his global footprint. Duke often maintained that his contemporary style of jazz should not be limited to the genre and should be enjoyed as a general and hybrid form of classless music. Ellington was immensely critical in inspiring a jazz revolution throughout America. He mentored acts such as Jonny Hodges who would go on to be distinguished as one of the greatest saxophonists to ever live (Pinkney et al. 15).
Duke Ellington is believed to have written more than 1000 compositions. As Pinkney et al. (15) explains, the pianist’s extensive body of work is currently the largest ever recorded personal jazz legacy. Some of his works have been adopted as standards and are frequently referenced in modern jazz and popular culture. Although faced with a multitude of challenges and occasional creative slumps, Ellington’s orchestra managed to stay relatively relevant. They would enjoy a major career revival in July 1956 and embarked on a widely successful world tour. The composer recorded with most major American record companies and performed in numerous stage musicals and films. The authors close by noting that Ellington’s charisma and eloquence left an huge impression in many quarters and tremendously improved the perception of the Jazz and informed its subsequent elevation into a noteworthy genre at par with other traditional categories.
The book Duke: a life of Duke Ellington by Teachout (3) addresses the personal and professional life, successes and failures experienced by the composer. According to the author, Ellington married his longtime girlfriend and high school sweetheart Edna Thompson in 1918. The following year, young couple would be blessed with a son, Mercer Kennedy Ellington. According to Teachout (4), Ellington would soon move on to New York City and joined later by the family as his music career became sufficiently promising. However, it would not be long before the two separated permanently. Edna, as Teachout (4) narrates, was extremely homesick her native Washington D.C. She returned and remained there until her death in 1967. Ellington would then gain companionship in Mildred Dixon, who would take care of his son, travel with him and managed his production outfit. Mildred was a key inspiration behind many of Duke’s later works with several songs being dedicated to her at the height of his career.
Ellington’s companionship with Mildred would not last long (Teachout 5). He left his family and moved in with Beatrice Ellis, a young, voluptuous Cotton Club employee. Their relationship was stormy and was characterized by frequent bouts of separation. Ellington met and established an intimate acquaintance with yet another New York beauty of Cuban origin, Fernanda de Castro Monte in 1962 whom she was with until his death. Ellington would financially support the two women for the rest of his life.
Ellington’s sister, Ruth managed his music publishing empire, Tempo Music. His son, Mercer, had his own band and played piano and trumpet. He also served as his father’s business manager. According to Teachout (38) Ellington succumbed to pneumonia and lung cancer complications in May 1974.
Wall (197)’s Duke Ellington, Radio Remotes, and the Mediation of Big City Nightlife, 1927 to 1933 discusses the maestro’s flamboyant personality and established music career pre-WWII. Ellington frequently employed visual gestures and keyboard piano cues to lead his orchestra. He valued quality but was not a strict disciplinarian. Instead, he chose a combination of astute psychology, flattery, humor and charm to assert himself. He was a private person who only revealed his feelings to those he was closest to. As Wall (198) observes, Ellington frequently used his gigantic public persona to deflect away unwanted attention. The author observes that the Great Depression had a profound adverse impact on Ellington’s career. The record company he was signed in, Brunswick, laid off 90% of its artists by 1933 and halted production in anticipation for better financial tidings. Wall (203) notes that Ellington continued to record, churning hits such as In a sentimental Mood, Solitude, Sophisticated Lady, and Mood Indigo featuring Ivie Anderson and would soon be back on the road recording.
Pinkney, Andrea Davis, et al. Duke Ellington. Weston Woods Studios, 2011.
Teachout, Terry. Duke: a life of Duke Ellington. Avery, 2013.
Wall, T., 2012. Duke Ellington, Radio Remotes, and the Mediation of Big City Nightlife, 1927 to 1933. Jazz Perspectives, 6(1-2), pp.197-222.
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