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
rough spot. They were often stuck in the street with no money and nowhere
to go. Duke and his band often were stuck doing crude recordings just for
a few dollars to buy a meal. In the Autumn of 1927, luck had crossed paths
with Duke again. The manager of