Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born April 29th, 1899 in Washington, DC to James Edward Kennedy and Daisy Kennedy Ellington, who were both pianists. He was a composer, pianist, and jazz-orchestra leader and his career spanned more than fifty years; he led his orchestra from 1923 until his death.
Although he was born in DC, he was based in New York City from the mid-1920s onwards, and gained a national profile through his orchestra’s appearances at the Cotton Club. In the 1930s, they toured Europe.
Ellington’s father James was born in Lincolnton, North Carolina on April 15th, 1879 and moved to DC in 1886 with his parents. His mother was born in DC on January 4th, 1879, and was the daughter of former slave. Daisy and James were both pianists: Daisy primarily played parlor songs and James preferred operatic songs. The family lived with Ellington’s maternal grandparents at 2129 Ida Place NW (now Ward Place) in the West End neighborhood.
At the age of seven, Ellington began taking piano lessons from Marietta Clinkscales. Daisy surrounded her son with dignified women to reinforce his manners and teach him to live elegantly. His childhood friends noted that “his casual, offhand manner, his easy grace, and his dapper dress gave him the bearing of a younger nobleman,” and they began calling him Duke. Ellington credited his friend Edgar McEntree for the nickname:
I think he felt that in order for me to be eligible for his constant companionship, I should have a title. So he called me Duke.
Ellington attended Armstrong Technical High School, and his first job was selling peanuts at Washington Senators baseball games.
Ellington began listening to, watching, and imitating ragtime pianists, not only in DC, but also in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, where he vacationed with his mother during the summer. Dunbar High School teacher Henry Lee Grant gave him private lessons in harmony, and with the additional guidance of another DC pianist Oliver “Doc” Perry, he learned to read sheet music, project a professional style, and improve his technique. Ellington started to play gigs in cafes and clubs in and around DC and his attachment became so strong that he turned down an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1916. Three months before graduating, Ellington dropped out of Armstrong Manual Training School, where he was studying commercial art.
Ellington played throughout the DC area and Virginia for private society balls and embassy parties. His band, The Duke’s Serenaders, included his childhood friend Otto Hardwick, who started on string bass, then moved to C-melody sax and finally settled on alto saxophone; Arthur Whesol on trumpet; Elmer Snowden on banjo; and Sonny Greer on drums.
Ellington married his high school sweetheart Edna Thompson (d. 1967) on July 2nd, 1918 when he was nineteen. Shortly after their marriage, Edna gave birth to their son Mercer Kennedy Ellington on March 11th, 1919. His wife and son joined him in NYC in the late 1920s, but the couple soon permanently separated. According to her obituary in Jet magazine, she was “[h]omesick for Washington” and returned to DC.
Ellington died from lung cancer and pneumonia on May 29th, 1974, a month after his 75th birthday. His last words were:
Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered.