Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
JAZZ A Film By Ken Burns
Places, Spaces and Changing Faces
Jazz Lounge
Jazz in Time
Behind the Beat
Jazz Exchange
About the Show
Related Links
Jazz Near You
Shop Jazz
Jazz Links
Jazz Cards
Miles Davis circa 1955; Duke Ellington; Louis Armstrong; Cover of Sheet Music by Fats Waller
BiographiesSelected Artist Biography
Biographies, Life and times of the great ones Billie Holiday in Performance 1948; Benny Goodman 1936; Art Blakey at the Open Door in NYC; Awning of Village Vanguard 1960's
Duke Ellington

Courtesy of Jazz at Lincoln Center

(1899-1974) Composer, bandleader, pianist

Audio sample East St. Louis Toodle-oo
Recorded November 29, 1926
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)

Audio sample Echoes of Harlem
Recorded February 28, 1936
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)

Duke Ellington
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection
Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was the most prolific composer of the twentieth century in terms of both number of compositions and variety of forms. His development was one of the most spectacular in the history of music, underscored by more than fifty years of sustained achievement as an artist and an entertainer. He is considered by many to be America's greatest composer, bandleader, and recording artist.

The extent of Ellington's innovations helped to redefine the various forms in which he worked. He synthesized many of the elements of American music — the minstrel song, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley tunes, the blues, and American appropriations of the European music tradition — into a consistent style with which, though technically complex, has a directness and a simplicity of expression largely absent from the purported art music of the twentieth century. Ellington's first great achievements came in the three-minute song form, and he later wrote music for all kinds of settings: the ballroom, the comedy stage, the nightclub, the movie house, the theater, the concert hall, and the cathedral. His blues writing resulted in new conceptions of form, harmony, and melody, and he became the master of the romantic ballad and created numerous works that featured the great soloists in his jazz orchestra.

Audio sample The Mooche
Recorded October 1, 1928
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)

NPR Audio Feature The NPR 100: "Mood Indigo"
Lou Santacroce tells the story behind this Ellington tune, a selection from National Public Radio's list of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th Century.

Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection

This elegant representative of American culture was born in Washington, DC, on April 29, 1899. Ellington studied piano from age seven and was influenced by stride piano masters such as James P. Johnson, Willie "the Lion" Smith, and Fats Waller. By 1923, he had moved to New York City and had his own band, the Washingtonians. He later formed the Duke Ellington Orchestra, which by 1930 had grown to include 12 musicians and achieved national prominence through radio broadcasts, recordings, and film appearances.

Audio Feature It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)
Recorded February 2, 1932
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)

Audio Feature Monsignor John Sanders, musician
Reflections on Duke Ellington
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)

By the early 1940s, Ellington experimented with extended composition and his orchestra toured the US and Europe extensively. In 1943, Ellington inaugurated a series of annual concerts at Carnegie Hall with the premiere of Black, Brown, and Beige. He continued to expand the scope of his compositions and activities as a bandleader throughout his life. His foreign tours became increasingly frequent and successful; his travel experiences served as the inspiration for his many works about people, places and trains. He wrote nearly two thousand compositions before his death in 1974.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Jazz Profiles: Duke Ellington, part 1
Host Nancy Wilson presents a general introduction to the career and music of the Duke in this first of a five-part Ellington profile.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Jazz Profiles: Duke Ellington, part 2
In this second part of our Ellington profile, host Nancy Wilson discusses how the Duke reconciled his popularity with the country's racial climate prior to civil rights.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Jazz Profiles: Duke Ellington, part 3
Host Nancy Wilson describes Ellington skills as a bandleader in this third of our five-part profile of the Duke.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Jazz Profiles: Duke Ellington, part 4
Host Nancy Wilson introduces a few of the key players in the Duke Ellington orchestra, including Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Harry Carney, and Clark Terry.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Jazz Profiles: Duke Ellington, part 5
In the final part of the NPR Jazz profile of the Duke, host Nancy Wilson features a roundup of the Duke Ellington songbook, including tracks like Don't Get Around Much Anymore and Satin Doll.

Text copyright 2000 by Jazz at Lincoln Center