Duke Ellington

Active - 1930 - 2020  |   Born - Apr 29, 1899 in Washington, District of Columbia, United States  |   Died - May 24, 1974   |   Genres - Music

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Biography by Hal Erickson

African American composer/ musician Duke Ellington was leader of the house band at New York's Cotton Club when talking pictures first gained popularity in 1928-1929. Ellington was one of many performers who showed up in quickie musical short subjects designed to show off the new sound system. He and his band made their feature-film debut in Check and Double Check (30), which starred radio's famed comedy duo Amos 'N' Andy. He was top-lined in such black-oriented "B" pictures as The Duke is Tops (38) and also made guest appearances in such minor musicals as Hit Parade (37), New Faces (37) and Reveille With Beverly (43). Duke Ellington was given his best movie break by director Otto Preminger, who engaged Ellington to write the now-famous jazz score for 1959's Anatomy of a Murder, and also wedged in a brief on-screen cameo for the Duke.

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  • Son of a White House butler.
  • Started piano lessons when he was 7.
  • His refined manners, taste and clothes earned him the nickname "Duke" as a child.
  • Worked as a peanut vendor at the home games of the Washington Senators.
  • Wrote his first song, "Soda Fountain Rag," when he was 15 and working as a soda jerk.
  • Moved to the Big Apple in 1923, eventually forming the Duke Ellington Orchestra. It became a fixture at the legendary Cotton Club from 1927 to 1931.
  • Composed more than 3000 songs, including "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," "Mood Indigo," "Satin Doll" and "Sophisticated Lady."
  • Debuted the jazz symphony "Black, Brown and Beige" at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1943. 
  • Received the President's Gold Medal from President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966; and the Medal of Freedom from President Richard M. Nixon in 1969.
  • Published his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, in 1973.