Edward Kennedy Ellington, one of the most accomplished American musicians, composers and performers of all time, was born and raised in Washington, D.C. He got his nickname “Duke” in high school, because of his reputation for being a sharp dresser with elegant manners. Born in 1899 on 22nd Street, Duke grew up in Shaw at 1212 T St., NW, of parents who both played the piano. He dropped out of high school to take piano lessons and soon was playing in the jazz clubs, which were then prevalent in Shaw. In fact, Washington in the early 1900s was a top city for African-American culture and music, and the U Street corridor was its mecca.
When Duke was 21, he and his band the Washingtonians headed for New York, where musical and African American culture was booming in Harlem. As his popularity grew, he played at the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater. But he also came back and played often in theaters on the “Great Black Way” on U Street, where stars like Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte frequently performed.
During his 50-year career, Duke wrote more than 1,000 compositions and entertained everyone from presidents to European royalty. He often broke the color barrier by playing for both white and black audiences, which was otherwise unheard of at that time. He is largely responsible for helping raise the prestige of jazz to a high art form, even though he had to start modestly; his first gig was at the famous Howard Theater on T Street, where he was paid a grand total of 75 cents.
When he died in 1974, his funeral in New York City was attended by more than 15,000 people. Ella Fitzgerald sang “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” and Judy Collins later wrote a song about the funeral. The awards and accolades kept coming after his death, culminating in a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1999. He had a school, a building, a park and a major bridge named after him in his hometown of Washington, D.C., as well as a street and a circle in New York City. He was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Nixon at an extravagant musical event in his honor at the White House in 1969. He received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966 and the Legion of Honor from the French government in 1973.
Duke Ellington kept his band and his love of music in the forefront of American culture through two World Wars and a recession. He was a brilliant pianist, incredibly prolific composer, recording artist, bandleader and entrepreneur. His whole life was completely dedicated to the art of jazz. Once in an interview, he was asked when he was born, and he replied that he “was born in July of 1956 at the Newport Jazz Festival.” When he died in 1974, his last words were, “Music is how I live.” The next time you hear “Mood Indigo” or “Take the A Train,” remember the Duke and his overflowing talent that gave the world an unprecedented appreciation for jazz, or as he liked to call it, “American music.” ?
Donna Evers, firstname.lastname@example.org is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman owned and run real estate firm in the Washington metro area; she is also the proprietor of Twin oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia, and a devoted student of Washington area history.