Duke Ellington is one of the most important pianists in American history and a huge figure in the history of Jazz music. He was born in Washinton, D.C. in 1899, and his parents (who both played the piano) let him start taking piano lessons at age 7. As a child, he listened to a lot of popular music, which at the time included Ragtime piano music (you'll hear some of this music in the next section). Eventually he moved to New York City and started playing piano at parties and dances.
This move started his career as a musician, and from there he went on to compose some of the most famous jazz/popular songs of the last century. Listen to this live performance of "It Don't Mean a Thing" to hear Ellington himself at the piano (and with my FAVORITE musician of all time, Ella Fitzgerald, singing).
"Duke" was not Ellington's real name (his parents named him Edward Kennedy Ellington). As he was growing up, his parents raised him to have very proper manners, and he always dressed very well. This caused his friends to call him "Duke," thinking that he acted like he was part of an important royal family.
Ellington created his first original composition at age 15, but he didn't write it down. Instead, he played it "by ear" and played it in a variety of different styles. In this recording you'll hear him playing this song many years later!
This syle of music is called "Ragtime." Have you heard ragtime music before?
Duke Ellington became famous not as a solo pianist, but as a bandleader. He always played piano in his group of musicians, but he was also the person responsible for conducting and organizing the other musicians. Instead of a traditional orchestra that included many string players (violins, violas, cellos, and string basses), Ellington's "orchestra" is made up mostly of wind musicians.
In this video of another one of his hit songs, notice how Ellington directs the other musicians while playing the piano. Can you name all the different instruments you see?
When many people of the word "composer," they imagine someone working alone to create music. Duke Ellington was a different kind of composer who worked with many other fine musicians to create new music.
One man that Ellington worked with was Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn helped compose many of the songs that Duke Ellington made famous. Ellington and Strayhorn worked together so closely that it's sometimes hard to say which of the two men composed most of the song!
This song, "Take the A Train," is a famous tune that is usually thought of as being composed by Duke Ellington, but it was written by Strayhorn. Ellington played it so many times and "made it his own" so much that people still think of him as being the composer of this song!
Another way that Duke Ellington differs from the traditional idea of a "composer" is that he wrote a lot of jazz music that encourages improvisation. Improvisation basically means to make up new music as you perform the song. Performers take the main ideas from the composition and make up exciting new melodies, rhythms, and musical ideas that the composer never wrote down!
Listen to this original composition by Ellington, the "C Jam Blues." At the beginning of the song you'll hear the original tune, which is just two notes that go back and forth. As the other musicians join in, they improvise (or "make up") new music to add over the top of the original song!
This video features the same song as the previous section, the "C Jam Blues," but because improvisation is such an important part of the composition the song sounds completely different!
You'll hear the same two note melody when the Ella Fitzgerald starts improvising, but then she and the other musicians improvise exciting music that sounds quite different than what you heard in the last video.
Many of the compositions that Duke Ellington wrote can be performed by any type of musician. He almost always played the piano in his band, but the melody of the song could be played by any of the instruments. This song, "Sophisticated Lady," has words and is often performed by singers, but is performed on the Baritone Saxophone in this video.
Notice how this saxophonist (Harry Carney) holds a single note for a full minute at the end of the song! How can he hold a note for so long without breathing?! This is because he is doing something called "circular breathing" where he breathes through his nose while blowing air through his mouth to play the saxophone!
Many of Duke Ellington's songs are still performed as "Jazz Standards." These are songs that everyone who plays jazz is expected to be familiar with. Every new artist who performs these songs adds something new to these songs.
Do you remember the video from the beginning of the month with Ella Fitzgerald singing "It Don't Mean a Thing" from the year 1965? Here's a video from almost 50 years later featuring Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett singing the same tune. What differences do you notice between these two versions of the same song?
Thanks for learning about Duke Ellington!
If you liked the music you heard, please listen to some more music by Duke Ellington!
Here's a bonus video for the month, just for fun!