Friday, May 24, 2019


It's hard to believe but jazz genius Duke Ellington died on this day 45 years ago. This obituary appeared in The New York Times on May 25th...

Duke Ellington, who expanded the literature of American music with compositions and performances that drew international critical praise and brought listening and dancing pleasure to two generations, died here yesterday at the age of 75.

He entered the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center's Harkness Pavilion at the end of March for treatment of cancer of both lungs, a condition that was complicated last Wednesday when he developed pneumonia.

At his death, the phrase “beyond category,” which Edward Kennedy Ellington had used as his highest form of praise for others, could quite literally be applied to the Duke himself, whose works were played and praised In settings as diverse as the old Cotton Club, Carnegie Hall and Westminster Abbey,

Mr. Ellington was born in Washington on April 29, 1899, the son of James Edward Ellington and the former Daisy Kennedy. His father was blueprint maker for the Navy Department, who also worked occasionally as a butler, sometimes at the White House.

In high school, the Duke, whose nickname was given to him by an admiring neighborhood friend when he was years old, was torn between his interests in painting and in music. He won a poster contest sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and in 1917 was offered a scholarship by the Pratt Institute of Applied Art. He turned it down, however, to devote himself to music.

He wrote his first composi“Soda Fountain Rag,” “en, while he was working after school as a soda jerk at thePoodle Dog Cafe. Some piano lessons he had received at theto age of 7 comprised the only formal musical education hehad. He learned by listening to the “two‐fisted piano play‐‐‐” of the period, paying particular attention to Sticky Mack, Doc Perry, James P. Johnson and Willie (The Lion) Smith.

By the time he was 20 he was making $150 a week playing with his small band at parties and dances. In this year, 1919, Sonny Greer became Mr. Ellington's drummer and remained with him until 1950, setting a pattern of longevity that was to be followed by Ellington sidemen. many

In 1922 Wilbur Sweatman, then a successful bandleader, asked Mr. Greer to join his band in New York. Mr. Ellingtop and three other members the group went along, too, ‘3’ but jobs in New York were so scarce that soon they were all back in ‘Washington. However, the visit gave Mr. Ellington an opportunity to hear the Harlem pianists who became prime influence on his own playing — Willie (The Lion) Smith, James P. Johnson and Johnson's protege Fats Waller.

At Mr. Waller's urging, Diike Ellington and his men returned to New,York in 1923. This time they got a job playing at Barron's in Harlem with Elmer Snowden, the group's banjoist, as nominal leader. When they moved downtown to the Hollywood Club (later known as the Kentucky Club) at Broadway and 49th Street, Mr. Snowden left the group and Mr. Ellington assumed the leadership.

During the four and a half years that Ellington's Washingtonians remained at the Kentucky Club, the group made its first records and ‘ did its first radio broadcasts. Late in 1927, when the band had’ expanded to 10 men, the Cotton Club, gaudy Harlem showplace, found itself in sudden need of an orchestra when King Oliver, whose band was scheduled to open there, decided he had not been offered enough money.

Mr. Ellington got thebooking, but first he had to be released from a theater engagement in Philadelphia. This was arranged when the operators of the Cotton Club asked some associates in Philadelphia to call on the theater manager with a proposition: “Be big or you'll be dead,” He was big and Duke Ellington began five‐year association with the Cotton Club.

A crucial factor in spreading the fame of the Ellington hand was a nightly radio broadcast from the Cotton Club that was heard across the country, introduced by the Ellington signature theme “East St. Louis Toodle‐Oo,” with Bubber Miley's growling trumpet setting the mood for the stomping and often exotic music that followed. Mr. Ellington's unique use of growling brass (identified as his “jungle” style) and the rich variety of tonal colors that he drew from his band brought musicians of all schools to the Cotton Club.

In 1930 the Ellington band appeared in its first featurelength movie, “Check and Double Check,” and in 1933 it went ‐overseas for the first time, to ‘Britain and Europe. During the thirties, the band appeared in several more films —“Murder at the Vanities,” “Belle of the Nineties” and The Hit Parade” — and made a second European tour ‘ in 1939.

When the furor over swing bands rose in the late thirties, the Ellington band was overshadowed by the glare of publicity that fell on the bands of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller. But as the swing era faded, the Ellington band hit one of its peaks in 1941 and 1942, years when all the greatest of Mr. Ellington's star sidemen (except Bubber Miley) were together in the band and when Mr. Ellington himself was in an extraordinarily creative. period as a composer.

By 1943, however, he was leaving the early phases of his career, behind him and turning to the extended compositions and concert presentations that would be an increasingly important part of his work.

In the fifties, when Interest in big bands dropped So low that all but a handful gave up completely or worked on a part‐time basis, Mr. Ellington kept his band together even when the economic basis became very shaky. The fortunes of the Ellington band started to rise again in 1956 when, at the Newport Jazz Festival, a performance of a composition Mr. Ellington had written 20 years before, “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” propelled by a 27chorus. solo by the tenor ,saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, Set off dancing in the aisles that reminded observers of the joyous excitement that Benny Goodman had generated at’ New York's Paramount Theater in the thirties.

During the next 15 years, Mr. Ellington's orchestra was heard in all areas of the world, touring the Middle East, the Far East and the Soviet Union under the auspices of the State Department, playing in Africa, South America and Europe. Mr. Ellington wrote !scores for five ‘films — “Paris !Blues,” “Anatomy of a Murder,” “Assault on a Queen,” “Change of Mind” and a German picture, “Janus.”

He composed a ballet, “The River,” in 1970 for Alvin Ailey and the American Ballet Theater. In 1963 he wrote a pageant of black history, “My People,” which was presented in Chicago. He had also written for the theater earlier in his career —a musical, “Jump for Joy,” produced in Los Angeles in 1941, and a score with lyrics by, John Latouche for “Beggar's Holiday,” an adaptation of John Gay's “Beggar's Opera” on Broadway in 1947.

Honors were heaped on him. In 1969, at a celebration of his 70th birthday at the ‐White House, President Nixon awarded him. the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Georges Pompidon of ‘France in 1973 gave ‘him the Legion of ??

Through all ‐this, Mr. Ellington kept up the steady pace of composing and performing and traveling that he had maintained since the late nineteentwenties. Everywhere he went, his electric piano went with him, for there was scarcely a day in his life when he did not compose something.

“You know how it is,” he said. “You go home expecting to go right to bed. But then, on the way, you go past the piano and there's a flirtation. It flirts with you. So, you sit down and try out a couple of chords and when you look up, it's 7 A.M.”

Quite logically Mr. Ellihgton called his autobiography, published in 1973, “Music Is My Mistress.”

“Music is my mistress,” he wrote, “and she plays second fiddle to no one.”

Mr. Ellington married Edna Thompson in 1918. Their son, Mercer, was born the following year. The couple were divorced in 1930 and Mr. Ellington's second m'arriage, to Mildred Dixon, a dancer at the Cotton Club, also ended in divorce.

Surviving besides his son, Mercer, is his widow, Bea (Evie) Ellis; a sister, Ruth, and three grandchildren.

Funeral services will be held on Monday at 1 P.M. at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, Amsterdam Aveye and 112th Street.

Mr. Ellington's body went on view last night at the Walter B. Cooke funeral chapel at Third Avenue and 85th Street. Viewing hours will continue between 8 A.M. and 10 P.M. today and tomorrow...

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