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ELLINGTON, Edward Kennedy "Duke"

ELLINGTON, Edward Kennedy

Composer and bandleader Duke Ellington led one of the most remarkable and self-defined orchestras in jazz for 50 years. It not only held to a consistent musical vision that sprang directly from his own work as a composer, but it sustained for decades with a loyal core of soloists who made their own marks on jazz history.

Within the context of running a band, Ellington also became the only figure from the jazz world ever to make an imprint on the American popular song book comparable in breadth and depth to that achieved by Gershwin, Rodgers, Berlin, Arlen and others. Songs such as "Mood Indigo," "Solitude," "In A Sentimental Mood," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and many others were widely performed and became American pop standards widely known today.

Ellington was born April 29, 1899, and grew up in a middle-class environment in Washington, D.C. He began playing at seven and gravitated to the ragtime and stride styles. He came to New York with Elmer Snowden's Washingtonians, and soon assumed leadership when Snowden departed. This left Ellington with a charter group of players who would remain with him for years and follow him to the top: Sonny Greer, Otto Hardwick, Arthur Whetsol and Fred Guy. Before the end of the '20s, Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams had joined, each of whom would still be with Ellington in the 1960s.

Ellington's formative years cover 1924 to about 1935, when the various plunger devices were integrated into an ensemble structure of varied combinations and blends. The rhythm section that began as a choppy, chugging time-keeping tool smoothed out as bass and guitar replaced tuba and banjo. Lawrence Brown brought a unique trombone sound to the band. The period also yielded a combination of Ellington staples ("Rockin' In Rhythm," "Black And Tan Fantasy," "Creole Love Call") that would remain the repertoire until the end.

The mature period begins in the mid-'30s and works up to what many regard as the band's peak years from 1940-'45, during which time bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster became confirmed Ellingtonians. Essentials of the period include "Ko Ko," "Concerto For Cootie," "Jack The Bear," "Cotton Tail," "Harlem Airshaft" and "Take The A Train," all recorded for Victor. This period of intense creativity extends into Ellington's most ambitious foray into extended composition, the epic "Black, Brown And Beige," introduced in 1943. After the war the '40s sound survived, but the compositional intensity petered out until, by the end of the decade, Ellington lost much of his distinctive voices.

The modern period, or the Newport Era, if your prefer, begins around 1951 when Sonny Greer was replaced on drums by Louis Bellson and the band suddenly sprang to life with an astonishing new rhythmic alertness and vitality. Bellson stayed for about three years, ultimately to be replaced by Sam Woodyard. But the rhythmic buoyancy of the band was forever set on a modern track and inspired subtle improvements in the band's overall precision and musicianship. By the time Johnny Hodges returned after a five-year absence, Ellington was reinvigorated and ready to charge forward.

The historic performance of "Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue" at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 opened a whole new era of prosperity for Ellington, who responded a revived commitment to composition and produced a succession of stimulating works, from "Such Sweet Thunder" (1957) to "The Far East Suite" (1966).

During the final years of the band from the late '60s to 1974, mortality whittled away at what had seemed for long to be immutable. Duke Ellington died of cancer on May 24, 1974, although the band continued irregularly under the direction of Duke's son, Mercer.

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