Born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington, D.C., into a middle-class family, he acquired the nickname Duke as a child for his manners, clothing, and personality. He began playing for friends and at parties and soon formed a small dance band named The Duke's Serenaders. In 1923 Ellington moved to New York City, 4 years later Ellington began performing at The Cotton Club, the most prominent nightclub in the Harlem area of New York City at the time.
In the late 1920s Ellington composed for and recorded with his 12-member orchestra such pieces as Black and Tan Fantasy, The Mooche and Mood Indigo. Through recordings such as these and through radio broadcasts from The Cotton Club, Ellington gained a national and international reputation. In 1931 he took his band on its first tour of the United States. With his piece It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing), Ellington anticipated the era when swing music and dancing became a national obsession in the United States.
After 1932 Ellington enlarged his orchestra to 14 members, and in 1939 he hired a gifted young American arranger, Billy Strayhorn, wrote one of the Ellington orchestra's signature tunes, Take the 'A' Train. By 1940 Ellington's band included some of the best American jazz instrumentalists. During this period his orchestra also recorded so-called tone poems, which anticipated the bebop style of 1940s jazz. In the late 1940s Ellington's band, which generally maintained a remarkably stable membership, experienced a higher rate of turnover among musicians and went into creative and commercial decline.
In 1953 Ellington recorded the album Piano Reflections, on which some of his most enduring work as a pianist can be found. A religious man, Ellington began composing liturgical works (which he called sacred concerts) in the 1960s. Over the course of his career, Ellington wrote a number of pieces that became standards in the jazz repertory. During his lifetime, Ellington received hundreds of distinctions, including 11 Grammy Awards and 19 honorary doctorate degrees. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the United States and the Legion of Honor by France, the highest civilian honors in each country, respectively.
In 1988 the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., acquired his entire archive—200,000 pages of unpublished music and other documents—and made it available to researchers, musicians, and the general public. He is considered the greatest composer in the history of jazz music and one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. Unlike other great band leaders, Ellington personally created most of the music played by his orchestra. Ellington composed about 2001 works, including musical comedies, music for ballet and motion pictures, an opera, and numerous short songs and instrumentals.
He composed exclusively for his jazz big band, seeking out players with distinct musical styles. Beginning in the 1930s and throughout the remainder of his career, Ellington toured incessantly with his group, logging an estimated 16 million km (10 million mi) of travel and playing an estimated 20,000 performances throughout the United States and in 65 other nations around the world.
Jazz: A History of the New York Scene
Samuel Charters and Leonard Kunstadt
(Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y., 1962) p.73
by Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, New York