A Portrait of Duke Ellington By Tracy Frech
Duke Ellington is considered to be one of the greatest figures in the history of American music. Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born in Washington D.C. on April 29, 1899. His parents were James Edward and Daisy Kennedy Ellington. They raised Duke as an only child, until his sister, Ruth, was born when Duke was sixteen years old. Duke, even as a teenager, had a great talent for music. In the beginning of his musical life, Duke began to take a promising interest in a new type of music that would later be called jazz. Choosing to base his career on a new idea may not have been smart, but Duke did take this chance and in turn became one of the most famous musicians in America.
Duke's first job was at a government office. He was a clerk who received the minimum wage and was barely getting by. He would arrange dance bands for weddings and parties for extra money. His mother taught him how to play the piano. Sometimes he put this knowledge to use and played at a few of the dance parties and weddings. After Duke's first job, he became more interested in painting and the arts. For a few years he painted public posters. Duke then decided to put together his own band.
At this point in his life things started to change for the better for Duke, but not for long. In those days, this new music was just beginning to develop and would later be given the name of jazz. In that time it was considered to be low and vulgar because it was music that grew directly out of the Black culture. In those early years, segregation was at one of its all time worst points in history. I think that is why Duke Ellington was one of the most important individuals to the growth and development of jazz. During Duke's long career, the new music slowly spread out of bars and saloons, to dance and night clubs and then eventually onto the concert stage. In time, jazz became a universally recognized form of art and has been said that it is the only real form that has originated from the American soul. By the 1960's Duke traveled the globe so many times that he became known as the unofficial ambassador to the United States. Duke's band had played in Russia, Japan, Latin America, the Far East, the Middle East, and Africa. Duke, himself, was an elegant man. When the white people looked down on the black man and his music, Duke managed to bring dignity to every one of his performances.
Once, the jazz historian Leonard Feather described Duke as, "an inch over six feet tall, sturdily built, he had an innate grandeur that would have enabled him to step with unquenched dignity out of a mud puddle." Duke's private life was something of an enigma. Although he had many friends he never really told them everything about himself. He would often guard his privacy probably because he had so little of it. When he was alone though, he would almost always be arranging the next tune for the band to play, and was always thinking or preparing something for the band to do in the next performance. Duke attracted some of the greatest musicians to join his band. Because of this it has been said that many of Duke's pieces are almost impossible to exactly duplicate without the personal style of the original musicians. One of the strange things that was known about Duke was that his school music teacher, Mrs. Clinkscales, who played the piano, was always the inspiration for him to just sit down and start tinkering around with a few notes that usually became big hits. In his band the two, probably most famous musicians were the trumpeter Whetsol and the saxophonist Hodges. As the band became more and more popular, saxophonist Hodges became the highest paid performer in the United States.
The 1920's became known as "the Jazz Age" because jazz had hit its first great burst of popularity. At that time Duke then added a young drummer named Sonny Greer. A few years after Greer was hired, Duke's band hit a very...
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