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Duke Ellington Essay

2555 words - 10 pages

Born on April 29, 1899, in Washington, D.C., he grew up among that city's substantial black middle class. His mother, Daisy Kennedy, was the daughter of a District of Columbia police captain. Daisy married the ambitious young James Edward Ellington, who was successively a coachman, butler, caterer, and blueprint draftsman. J.E., as Duke called his father, always acted as though he had money, whether he had it or not. He raised his family as though he were a millionaire Ellington had a happy childhood, from which he emerged strong and whole: He was an eager athlete, a bit of a bookworm, but not much interested in schoolwork. In the only music course that appears on his high school transcript, he got a D. But when he learned, as he later put it, that when you were playing piano there was always a pretty girl standing down at the bass clef end of the piano he dedicated himself to keyboard technique. By his mid-teens, Duke (the nickname came from a snooty junior high school friend who liked to give his pals titles) was hanging out at Frank Holliday's pool room on T Street, a magnet for Pullman porters, pool sharks, and the city's best piano players. And the kid watched. And listened.Soon he had his own band. Offered a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (he was a visual artist of some promise), the eighteen-year-old Duke turned it down he was making too much money as a dance band entrepreneur, sending out four or five groups a night. In 1918 he married Edna Thompson. In 1919 a son, Mercer, was born. The marriage soon foundered, and though Duke and Edna never divorced, they rarely saw each other after the mid-twenties.In 1923 Ellington and his fellow musicians Sonny Greer and Otto Hardwick ventured to New York, where they quickly began to starve. Hightailing it back to D.C. for some of Miss Daisy's cooking, they felt the pull of New York again after three months. This time they landed a gig at Barron Wilkins's Harlem cafe, playing what was then called conversation music, soft, sweet, and conventional.Later in 1923 the group was offered a job on West 49th Street at the Hollywood Cafe, soon renamed Club Kentucky. Ten men strong now (they would eventually grow to sixteen); they were no longer playing conversation music but something weird and compelling. Dubbed jungle music for Sonny Greer is obsessively pounding tom-toms; it had little to do with Africa and everything to do with the African-American blues. Whatever you called it, the Ellington band's music sounded like nothing before or since.Its singularity was rooted first in the musicians themselves, an unrivaled collection of musical eccentrics, one writer has called them and second in their boss's gift for combining and blending their idiosyncrasies into an even more striking whole. Trumpeter Bubber Miley's smears, groans, and wails, or the insinuating noises, like a cat in heat, that trumpeter Cootie Williams got from a plunger mute (the business end of a toilet plunger cupped over the...

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