Duke Ellington, by Roger Boyes
Duke Ellington (1899-1974), pianist, composer and band leader, was one of the twentieth century’s most significant composers, and the most significant in jazz. He turned down a scholarship in applied arts to pursue a career in music, at first in his native Washington, then in New York. Here he formed a band, became established in night clubs, and contributed to a musical Chocolate Kiddies, which never reached Broadway but was a hit in Europe, especially Berlin.
In late 1927 he began an association with impresario and song publisher Irving Mills, and took up a residency at the most famous Harlem venue of all, the Cotton Club. He stayed until 1931, taking time out for summer tours, mainly in New England, and his first appearances in films.
From 1931 he lived on the road, though he always had a home in New York, which he called ‘my mailbox’. He travelled throughout the USA and Canada, and came to Europe, which impressed him deeply, especially Britain (1933), Sweden (1939) and Paris (both). He also became a successful songwriter, with Mood Indigo, Sophisticated Lady, Solitude, I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart, Caravan, and others. In later years royalties from these hits helped keep the band on the road.
In the ‘swing era’ he enjoyed great success, though his uniquely personal compositions set him apart from other popular bandleaders. He left Mills in 1939, and hired a great saxophonist, Ben Webster, a revolutionary though tragically short-lived bassist, Jimmie Blanton, and ‘my writing and arranging companion’, Billy Strayhorn, composer of the orchestra’s theme, Take The A Train, and many other pieces.
Thus stimulated, Duke scaled further creative heights in the1940s, culminating in Black, Brown and Beige, his ‘tone parallel to the American Negro’, premiered in Carnegie Hall in 1943. The idea had been in his mind for years and it would continue to preoccupy him. He often performed extracts, and re-recorded it in stages in the 1960s, though after mixed critical reactions he never played all of it again after the first performances. Its next performances and complete recording were in London (1972), by Alan Cohen and Brian Priestley. But Duke produced many more extended works, often on related themes, for the rest of his life.
There were new hit songs (Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, I’m Beginning To See The Light), though Satin Doll (1953, co-composed with Strayhorn and Johnny Mercer) was the last. The dancehalls and the bands folded, but Duke kept going. He had moved into the concert hall successfully, and in 1956 he triumphed at the Newport Jazz Festival; the live recording of this event was a bestselling LP. To questions about his age he would reply: ‘I was born on 7 July 1956 at Newport’.
He returned to Britain in 1948 and Europe in 1950. In 1958 he was presented to HM Queen Elizabeth at the Leeds Music Festival. This inspired The Queen’s Suite, which he recorded privately for her, allowing no other copy to be pressed in his lifetime. In 1964 the Ellington Orchestra inaugurated jazz on British TV with the first of BBC2’s Jazz 625 series. He visited Europe regularly for the rest of his life, and once he had overcome his fear of flying the band performed concerts world-wide. They always enjoyed a dancehall one-nighter though, when given the chance to play one.
Musicians came and went over the years, as they tired of travelling; or died; or left to pursue solo careers. Some stayed for decades; others came back after ten or even twenty years away. The death in 1967 of Billy Strayhorn affected Duke deeply, but stimulated even more creative energy. Suites commemorated trips to Asia, Africa and Latin America. Other inspirations included: New Orleans, Degas, Shakespeare’s plays, Steinbeck’s novels, the restoration of a mediaeval church in France, a festival of Negro Arts in Senegal.
In the 1960s he composed three Sacred Concerts, performing them in many churches and cathedrals, including Coventry and Cambridge. The third was premiered in Westminster Abbey in 1973, a few months before he died. At present excerpts from these are among his most frequently performed music in the UK.
He continued to appear in films, and his film music includes Anatomy of a Murder (1958). He had less success in the theatre, though the musical Jump For Joy (1941) did well and has been revived. His ballet music is better known. Night Creature (1955), his and Billy’s take on Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker (1960), and The River (1970) have been in the repertory of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the English National Ballet, and other companies.
Duke Ellington died in 1974, but interest in his music is as high as ever. It is played and studied around the world. Since the early 1980s many conferences, five of them in Britain, have celebrated his achievements. The catalogue of his compositions and recordings is huge.
The Society, DESUK, was founded in 1994 to celebrate and promote the wider appreciation of the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. If you love their music, you should be a member!
Members include many leading figures in the UK jazz scene. Vic Bellerby, Peter Boizot, Alan Cohen, Michael Garrick, Peter Long, Tony Faulkner, John Milner, Alun Morgan, Brian Priestley, Alyn Shipton and Mike Westbrook are, or were during their lives, all members. Humphrey Lyttelton was our Honorary President until his death in 2008.
The Society is truly national, with members throughout the UK. Members come from all walks of life, but are united in their love of Ellingtonia. DESUK also welcomes overseas members. Such internationally renowned authorities as Sjef Hoefsmit, Arne Hoxbro Larsen, Steven Lasker, Bjarne Busk, Francois Xavier-Moule, Ken Steiner, Jack Towers, Jerry Valburn and William E. Timner are or were among our members.
The Society is managed by its Committee which meets four times a year.
DESUK circulates a quarterly house magazine to its members - see the Blue Light page for more details.
In ordinary times we meet regularly in London to listen and socialise, and new arrivals always welcome. During the Covid-19 pandemic we’ve had to suspend these meetings, but the society’s social aspect continues under the auspices of Uptown Lockdown.
DESUK holds a national general meeting annually in London on a weekend afternoon on or near the anniversary of Duke’s birth, usually towards the end of April.
Honorary and eminent members
We are proud to have the following Ellingtonian musicians as Honorary Members:
- Art Baron
- John Lamb
- Vincent Prudente
Our eminent members and associates include:
- Alun Morgan Australia
- Bjarne Busk Denmark
- David Bradbury
- Digby Fairweather
- John Milner
- Jools Holland OBE
- Julian Joseph
- Lord David Steel of Aikwood
- Mike Westbrook OBE
- Nigel Kennedy
- Steven Lasker USA
- Tony Faulkner
- William E Timner Canada