Today we celebrate the birthday of Duke Ellington, who was born on this day 117 years ago. Music as his mistress, he was the man that truly made a lady out of jazz—and a sophisticated lady, at that.
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C. to two piano playing parents. As a youngster, he came to be called Duke for his refined manners and dapper style of dress. While working as a soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Café in 1914, Duke composed his first song, the “Soda Fountain Rag” (a.k.a. the “Poodle Dog Rag”), which he played in a variety of styles. Working as a sign painter in the latter part of the 1910s, Ellington put together small bands for various affairs. He put his first orchestra together in 1917, included as its early members were his childhood friend Otto Hardwick, Arthur Whetsel, Elmer Snowden, and Sonny Greer. Eventually, the band moved to Harlem, following drummer Sonny Greer, who was invited to play with Wilbur Sweatman’s band. In 1924, the band made its first records on the Blu Disc label, which were sold only at the cigar counter of a New York theater. As the Washingtonians, led by Elmer Snowden, the band played at Harlem’s Kentucky Club. Snowden was later kicked out of the band over a financial dispute and full leadership was assumed by Ellington.
In 1926, Ellington signed Irving Mills as his band’s agent, a move that brought his success to new heights. Later, in 1927, King Oliver had foolishly decided to hold out for more money on the prestigious Cotton Club gig, and Ellington took the job, his orchestra becoming the house band of the famous club, replacing the recently deceased Andy Preer. He held the position until Cab Calloway brought Preer’s band (as the Missourians) back to the Cotton Club. Duke was brought to greater fame when his orchestra appeared in the 1930 Amos ‘n’ Andy picture Check and Double Check. Ellington toured across the United States in the early 1930s, and, like many American artists, made a European tour in 1933. Throughout the years, Ellington featured many great musicians and introduced many famous pieces. He appeared in a number of films and continued to enjoy immense success as one of the world’s foremost musical forces until his death in 1974.
Brunswick 6265 was recorded February 2 and 11, 1932 in New York City. Ellington’s Famous Orchestra features Arthur Whetsel, Freddie Jenkins, and Cootie Williams on trumpets, Joe Nanton and Juan Tizol on trombones, Barney Bigard on clarinet and tenor sax, Johnny Hodges on clarinet, soprano sax, and alto sax, Harry Carney on clarinet, alto sax and baritone sax, Duke on piano, Fred Guy on banjo, Wellman Braud on string bass, and Sonny Greer on drums.
First up, it’s Ellington’s famous “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing)”, named after the credo of former band-mate Bubber Miley, who was ailing at the time. Ivie Anderson provides the famous vocal.
On the reverse, Ellington’s Famous Orchestra plays the old standard, “Rose Room (In Sunny Roseland)”.
Updated with improved audio on April 29, 2019.
“Make a lady out of jazz” was a Paul Whiteman line. Ellington to the New York _Times_, 1943: “Don’t let them kid you about Whiteman. He has been a big man in our music.”