Edward Kennedy Ellington was born April 29th 1899 in Washington, DC. From an early age, Ellington was instilled with solid, conservative morals. He was taught to pride himself and his family and to achieve to the utmost of his dreams. At such a crucial time in the history of the African American, there was a struggle to be accepted and to fit into the American culture that so far had not embraced them. This held true for Ellington’s family. As Ellington said of his father, he always “acted as though he had money, whether he had it or not.
This sentiment and attitude towards life is what led and encouraged Ellington to be the person that he became to be. During a time in history, when just surviving was a struggle for the average black American, Duke Ellington, as he became known as, evolved into one of the most innovative and well-known musicians in the history of jazz. Growing up, Duke was rather privileged compared to his African American counterparts. His father was a butler for a white upper class family.
This in itself, allowed Duke to be exposed to some of the things that life had to offer, yet never would have seen if he had not lived with the Cuthbert family, for whom his father worked. As a butler, J. E. , Duke’s father had a certain aura or presence about him that naturally made him more reserved and refined than your average working class black man. “Duke was influenced by his strong identification with his father. J. E. was an elegant man, an excellent ballroom dancer, and a connoisseur of wines.
There was a striking difference between the life that many of the young black people of the time led, and that of Ellington. Not only was Ellington raised in a refined and proper manner, he was also exposed to luxuries unimaginable to most lower class black families of the time. They would receive china and silverware, clothes and anything else naturally only gently used. If it were not for this, it would probably be impossible for the Ellington’s to own a piano, let alone two of them! Ellington’s family was “part of a social group whose morals were steadfastly Victorian and often puritanical in outlook…
Ellington was encouraged to become an achiever, and was taught pride in his race and a duty to represent it well. ” 3 The attitude and confidence that his family possessed is what led Ellington on the path that he took. The steadfast belief and faith that his family had in him is what encouraged Ellington to continue on and to persevere in life. Piano lessons did not go well in Ellington’s early life. He was uninterested in the hobby and as he said, “I missed more lessons than I took… After all, baseball, football, track and athletics were what real he-men were identified with”.
It was not until several years later, while working in a hotel down at the Jersey shore that someone suggested Ellington stop in Philadelphia on the way home to hear a pianist by the name of Harvey Brooks. Brooks was around the same age as Ellington and seeing another pianist his age would only awaken his increasing interest in piano even more, and it did just that. Ellington went through several teachers in order to find what he believed he needed to learn. Through learning and listening, “it took Ellington only a few weeks to synthesize his early piano memories to create his first composition, “Soda Fountain Rag”.
Many would be sufficiently happy with the position that Ellington was in, but not Duke. He wanted bigger and brighter things in his future. This, however, is where his parent’s encouragement and support stopped as far as the type of music Ellington was pulled towards. “His parent’s idea of acceptable music stopped far short of ragtime and blues… his education was proceeding on many fronts, but the Harlem stride style of pianism made the deepest impression on the youngster’s imagination… “6 This was the beginning of what would be a revelation in Ellington’s life as far as music and his career.
He was entering a path that would make him forever leave an imprint on the world of jazz. What was so unique about Ellington was that he was an extremely innovative composer. He was a wonderful piano player, but his ambition did not stop there. “Almost from the start, Ellington preferred writing his own compositions, and his zest for learning about music was never greater than when he could apply the pedagogical models at hand to his won efforts… He preferred to learn by doing rather than by analyzing scores, attending classes, or reading textbooks on composition or harmony.
This originality and quirkiness that Ellington had when it came to music is a key reason as to why Ellington chose to continue his career in music despite set backs, such as not being as successful as he would have liked in his first go around New York with his band. Ellington’s big break came when he landed a gig at “The Cotton Club”. This club opened up in New York City in 1923 in order to serve as a spot for a gangster, Owney Madden, to have an outlet for his beer business. 8 This was during the time of Prohibition, so liquor and alcohol was illegal at the time.
It had been a few years now since Ellington had collaborated up with other musicians to form his band. His booking at “The Cotton Club” was a definite turning point in his life as well as the lives of black musicians nationwide. Ellington and his comrades were on the cusp of a musical, intellectual and artistic revolution that would become known today as the Harlem Renaissance. Ellington knew that being in New York at that time was both a strategic career move as well as a fulfilling one.
A 1925 New York Times article would later write, ” ‘We are on the edge, if not the midst , of what might me called a Negro Renaissance’… As Negro Renaissance gave way to Harlem Renaissance, black people at last found prominent Afro-American figures in all areas of culture and the performing arts they could look up to… For Ellington the experience would be a defining one…. With it came the realization that New York, and more particularly Harlem, was where his destiny lay. ” 9 The Harlem Renaissance, as it was later called, was the pinnacle of Ellington’s career.
Not only was there are market for Ellington’s music, but there was a culture and style of people whom embraced not only Ellington’s music and jazz, but every aspect of African American culture. As Ellington stated during the heart of this amazing time, ” The music of my race is something more than the American idiom. It is the result of our transplantation to American soil, and was our reaction in the plantation days to the tyranny we endured. What we could not say openly, we expressed in music, and what we know as “jazz” is something more than just dance music… 10 Ellington was extremely committed to the advancement of the African American population.
What Ellington was engaging in was not just an occupation, and not just a musical revolution, it was something more than that. For the first time in their lives, blacks were being recognized for their advancement and contribution to American culture. People were interested in what they were doing and wanted to hear the music that they made. As Ellington mentions many times over, it was not just music. There was more to Ellington’s compositions and jazz in general.
For them, it represented a result of the struggle and hardships that their people had been through and the prejudices that they were still experiencing. “The history of my people is one of great achievement over fearful odds; it is a history of people hindered, handicapped and often sorely oppressed and what is being done by others in literature is overdue in music. “11 The success of Ellington’s music relied on the harsh backgrounds and realities that his compositions stemmed from and what he was motivated by. Ellington strived to project his racial pride through his music.
His aim was to portray jazz as a serious art form representing the black experience and struggle in America. It was this dedication and allegiance towards jazz that really enabled Ellington to evoke to the utmost of his ability the artistic and original creativity that he so possessed with regards composition and arrangement. “The Cotton Club” as mentioned earlier, was the beginning of a prominent career in jazz performance for Ellington. This however, did not come with out the harsh realities of what was expected of them being “negro” musicians.
The “Cotton Club” as it was so aptly named, was designed to replicate a cotton plantation, radiating a feeling of down South plantations complete with rising cotton bushes at the start of every performance. “The stage was set up to represent the Land of Cotton with a plantation cabin, rows of cotton bushes, and trees that shot up when the show started… The concept of the Cotton Club represented not the South of the aristocrats, but the South of the Negro. The people who came there wanted what they thought was the red-hot feeling of the South as depicted by Negroes…
The whole set was like the sleepy-time-down-South during slavery… the ideas was to make whites who came to club feel like they were being catered to and entertained by black slaves. “12 Ellington and his band’s music began to take on the name of “jungle music”, bearing a strikingly negative connotation. “If the jungle label functioned as a shield, enabling Ellington to attain levels of experimentation and subtlety that might not have been possible in other contexts, it also served to blind many people of those subtleties… eanwhile working the willy-nilly behind the “jungle” mask, Ellington was laying the foundations for one of the greatest bodies of work in twentieth-century music. ”
Ellington embraced the term “jungle music” appropriated to his band. Some may have seen it as a commercial endorsement in order to draw attention to the band itself, however Ellington used the name to his advantage allowing himself to be able to take more liberties with his music and creativity in composition. Jungle music was deemed a primitive, more African influenced style of music utilizing uncommon and dissonant sounds that had not previously been used before.
Had Ellington’s band not been backed by the name, he may not have felt as free and willing to take the liberties that he did with his compositions. “It provided an opportunity to explore new sounds, textures, harmonies and emotional states-a catalyst for his musical imagination. “14 In a way, it was as if Ellington was blindfolding the upper class white audience of the Cotton Club who, had this music not been backed by the name “jungle music” denoting a more unique, out there type of form, they would most probably be completely adverse to the style.
Even Ellington’s family did not approve of his titles of compositions and style. As his sister stated, “It was quite a shock. Here we were, my mother and I, sitting in this very respectable, Victorian living room in Washington, my mother so puritanical she didn’t even wear lipstick, and the announcer from New York tells us we are listening to ‘Duke Ellington and his Jungle Music’! “15 This acceptance of jungle music only fueled the fire for Ellington and his creative path to bigger and better compositions and arrangements.
Ellington was unique in the sense that he had an innate gift of being able to compose and arrange his own pieces on a daily basis! Ellington was never satisfied. He was always on the path to creating a better composition than the previous one. A staple of Ellington’s pieces was that Ellington truly got to know each of his band members. It was an intrinsic part of him being able to tailor each band member’s pieces so well. “It was Ellington’s ability to tie together the historical sources and passing inspirations, even more than the nature of any given contribution, that distinguished his unique musical aptitude…
The end result was a body of music that not only reflected the character of his players, but as perfectly suited to their strengths and weaknesses. As one of his counterparts also explained, “Duke studied his men. He studied their style, how they maneuver with their music, with their playing and everything. And he keeps that in his mind so if he wrote anything for you; it fit you like a glove. “16 Duke Ellington was a magnificent and proliferate musician, both for his time and still today.
Through his gift for arranging and composing rich pieces of music with intricate chord changes and melodic harmonies, all tailored to fit the artist whom was playing them, Ellington made a lasting impression on the jazz world. He embraced his black culture and the struggle to overcome and combat racial and prejudice which existed. He used his culture to his advantage, in order to illustrate and convey a style of music so original, it would not have been accepted any other way.
By using jungle music as a front for exposing his unique and original compositions, and portraying them as the down South Negro, stereotype, he was able to infiltrate a new, original form of jazz never before heard. Ellington’s gift for being able to compose multiple tunes and arrangements made him to be the legend, as he is known today. Duke Ellington has made a lasting impression on the jazz world, creating tactics and styles that would help to evolve the jazz music world and continues to be used.