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Duke Ellington is considered to be the most prolific composer of the 20th century both for the number of compositions he wrote and the myriad of forms he used. He was born Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington April 29, 1899 in Washington D.C.
He began taking piano lessons at age seven and wrote his first composition, “Soda Fountain Rag,” in 1914 at age 15 after working as a soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Cafe.
Ellington married his high school sweetheart Edna Thompson at age 19. The couple had one child, Mercer Kennedy Ellington.
Beginning in the 1920s, Ellington performed as the bandleader of a sextet in Broadway nightclubs. He made hundreds of recordings while appearing in films and on radio and also touring Europe twice during the 1930s.
It was not until the 1940s that Ellington rose to super stardom with his composition of “Concerto for Cootie,” “Cotton Tail,” and “Ko-Ko.” Some of his most popular songs were “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “Prelude to a Kiss.”
Over the course of his 50 year career, he recorded thousands of songs becoming known for his unique sense of musical drama. He published his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, in 1973 and earned a total of 12 Grammy Awards between 1959 and 2000, five of which were awarded posthumously.
Ellington passed away at age 75 on May 24, 1974 of lung cancer and pneumonia. His last words are reported to be, “Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered.”
The following video is a clip from the documentary On The Road With Duke Ellington directed by Robert Drew. Check it out to find out how got his inspiration to write his music.