Born on April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C., Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was a musician, bandleader and a prolific composer who has more than a thousand compositions to his credit.
His parents, James Edward and Daisy Kennedy Ellington, both pianists, nurtured his artistic abilities. Duke, who got his name from one of his friends, began taking piano lessons at age seven. In high school, he studied art and was awarded a scholarship to the Pratt Institute but turned it down.
Influenced by ragtime musicians, Duke began performing professionally at age 17. In 1923, he moved to New York City where he began playing in clubs. From 1927-32 and 1937-8, he played at Harlem’s Cotton Club.
From 1941, Duke began a collaboration with composer, arranger and pianist, Billy Strayhorn that produced many songs including, Take the A Train, and scores for 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder and Paris Blues (1961). They also produced adaptations of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, John Steinbeck’s, Sweet Thursday and Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt.
He is credited with adding sophistication to jazz and received many awards for his work, including the Grammy for Lifetime Achievement in 1966, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, the Legion of Honor in 1973 and a Pulitzer Prize, posthumously, in 1999.
In 1956, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine, one of only five jazz musicians to be so honored.
Duke Ellington lived for many years in Harlem at Riverside Drive and 106th Street. Following his death, West 106th Street was renamed Duke Ellington Boulevard and a memorial in his honor can be seen at Fifth Avenue and 110th Street.
He died in 1974. His wife, Edna Thompson, pre-deceased him. Their son, Mercer, led the Ellington orchestra following his father’s death.