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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 269

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This is the grave of Duke Ellington.

Born in 1899 to a pair of pianists in Washington, Edward Kennedy Ellington followed his parents to the piano from a young age. Although he was more interested in baseball as a child and worked for awhile selling peanuts at Senators games, he also began composing music. While in high school, he embraced his musical future, exposed himself to everything he could find, heard ragtime bands, and formed his first band in 1917. By 1919, he was making a half-living as a pianist. He was also a sign painter and a messenger for the Navy and he used every opportunity to promote his band for parties and other gatherings.

In 1921, Ellington followed his drummer Sonny Greer to Harlem. This was the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance and Ellington became a central figure in it. At first it didn’t take and they briefly moved back to Washington, but by 1923, Ellington was in Harlem for good. He got a four-year engagement at the Hollywood Club and that is where he would begin to make his name. That grew far greater when he moved to the Cotton Club in 1927, after King Oliver turned down the offer.

I could go into the intricacies of Ellington’s career from here. But I think it might be better generalize. In short, the Duke was the greatest. His compositions advanced the music in tremendous ways and his style and sophistication defined a scene. He mostly stayed in New York, even during the Great Depression, which was terrible for the music industry, but also had success on tours in the UK. He was well off enough that when he toured the South, he avoided Jim Crow by simply hiring private cars. He was well-known for his big band but also began using smaller groups, usually drawn from the big band, by the late 30s. He started his long association with the great lyricist Billy Strayhorn in 1939. Strayhorn would take Ellington’s music to another level, with his classical training and Ellington’s willingness to let him take over. Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” became the band’s theme song in 1941.

Like most music in this era, jazz songs were usually around 3 minutes. This was because of the limits of recording. But as long-play albums began appearing, Ellington wanted to expand jazz into larger and longer compositions. With Strayhorn’s assistance, Ellington premiered the first of these, his legendary Black, Brown, and Beige in 1943. But it was too different for a lot of people and wasn’t particularly well-received at the time. In fact, Ellington’s popularity suffered significantly in the early 1950s. He never made much money on his tours because the band was so large, but now things were getting dire. But his appearance at Newport Jazz in 1956, which became the great album Ellington at Newport, vaulted him back to the top of the jazz world. He remained hugely popular through the early 1960s, even as popular music and jazz were rapidly changing. This included his famed soundtrack for Anatomy of a Murder and his recording session with Max Roach and Charles Mingus that became Money Jungle. He continued making great albums through this era–Far East Suite in 1966 and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse in 1971 are two favorites of mine. He worked all the way to the end, which came in 1974, from lung cancer. Let’s listen to some Ellington.

I have a lot of Ellington albums. Every time I listen to one, I am reminded that I should do this more often.

Duke Ellington is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

If you would like this series to visit more of our jazz legends, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. As you peruse through the full list of who I have visited in this series, you can see I’ve actually hit quite a few. That said, John Coltrane and Count Basie are buried in East Farmingdale, New York and that’s out on Long Island and thus harder for me to normally get to.

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