At the time of his death in New York City on May 24, 1975, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, was known as an internationally renowned Black American composer, pianist, songwriter, actor, conductor, and jazz orchestra leader.
It was in this home that he first developed his interest in music, as both his parents were pianists. Ellington took his first piano lesson at age seven.
His mother began instilling in him at a young age his later well-known trademarks traits of elegance and dapper dress. Years later, when asked about how he acquired his nickname, Ellington, referencing his childhood friend, Edgar McEntee, said, “I think he felt in order for me to be eligible for his constant companionship, I should have a title. So, he called me Duke.” As a result, family and friends began referring to him by that name.
He attended Armstrong Technical High School. Displaying natural talent on the keyboard, Ellington dropped out during his senior year. Instead, Ellington followed his passion for ragtime and began playing professionally at age 17.
At the age of 19, Ellington married Edna Thompson, who had been his girlfriend since high school, and soon after their marriage, she gave birth to their only child, Mercer Kennedy Ellington.
Throughout his career, Ellington wrote or collaborated on more than one thousand compositions. For many, Ellington’s most famous jazz tune remains “Take the A Train,” recorded on February 15, 1941.
His mixture of rhythms, mastery of sonic textures, and compositional forms, offered his audiences a rare and unique flavor of jazz still enjoyed by many today almost fifty years after his death.
Roy Lewis, currently a photographer for the Washington Informer, first saw Ellington perform in Chicago at the McCormick Place in 1963. Says Lewis “The thing about Duke is he was a serious brother. His music was serious, and when you listened, he captured your attention. His music dealt with our history as a people and our struggle. His album, My People, remains one of my favorites. He was prolific at collaborating with others, including Mahalia Jackson and John Coltrane.”