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Duke Ellington: Multi Talented Man Essay

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Updated: Jul 9th, 2020


Duke Ellington is known as a man of many talents: a skilled performer, an inspired conductor, a masterly composer, and a dedicated bandleader. Throughout his life, Ellington was committed to jazz; “jazz,” he claimed, “is a good barometer of freedom” (Tucker & Ellington, 1995, p. 295). For an African American man, whose grandfather was a slave, jazz was the true realm of freedom. Thank his multiple talents, Duke managed to introduce this realm to thousands of listeners from all around the world.

Music Education of Duke Ellington

As an artist, Duke was known as an experimenter, reformer, and rule-breaker. Perhaps such an approach to music has formed under the influence of his non-traditional music education. As a child, Duke received pretty good training on piano. Both his parents were good pianists, and his mothers gave him lessons. Later, he became acquainted with the great masters of piano music. At the high school, his girlfriend taught him music theory and made him read sheet music.

Thus, Duke took his time to learn all the basic principles of music before endeavoring to defy them. Ellington attended music mentors, who gave him some important skills and made him acquainted with classical music, but he was not willing to enter the conservatory. African American music was not an academic subject there, and Duke did not want to sacrifice his time to anything but black music (Cohen, 2010, p. 18-19).

How Duke Ellington Has Become Famous

Duke Ellington has started his music career at a rather young age, and since then, he never stopped working hard and never turned away from his path towards fame and recognition. Having spent some time playing piano at various social events and gained some in-band experience, Duke decided to try himself as a bandleader. He composed a sextet that has eventually become an orchestra of ten musicians. Already demonstrating not only his music but also leadership skills, Ellington managed to find musicians, who could bring something unique to his ensemble. For instance, he invited Bubber Miley, who was known for the “wa-wa” sound of his plunger, and Joe Nanton with his distinguished trombone growl.

In the 1920-s, making a wise decision, his group moved from Washington, D.C. to New York, where they joined the so-called Harlem Renaissance. Duke has made numerous records with different cast members, as well as he performed two tours over Europe in the 1930-s. Ellington kept experimenting, testing, trying whatever he could add to his already sophisticated jazz; for example, he blended it with Latin American elements and the primitive but hot tunes known as “jungle music” (Duke Ellington biography, n.d., para. 3). In 1939, Duke started his long-term partnership with Billy Strayhorn. Getting engaged in a duet with Strayhorn, Duke has received an even better opportunity to make his own talent flourish, for Strayhorn has helped him create numerous masterworks.

Duke has become especially famous in the 1940-s. In this period, he created several masterpieces, such as “Cotton Tail” and “Concerto for Cootie.” People were fond of his “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and “Sophisticated Lady.” The complexity and uniqueness of these songs were doubled by the perfect performance of Ivie Anderson, a talented female vocalist, whom Duke had invited to his band. At the same time, he has started helping in setting up an annual jazz concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City, and this turned into a tradition that lasted until 1955.

Being himself, Duke invited something strikingly new each ear, and his pieces grew more and more sophisticated and long every time. However, it was not only the sweetness of the sound that turned people into his fateful listeners; Duke actually cared about the meaning and the message that his songs delivered. As an example, his first piece for Carnegie Hall, “Black, Brown, and Beige” consisted of three sections that were intended to share the story of the black people in America. The “Black” section told about the routine work and everyday prayer of the colored people. The “Brown” part honored the black soldiers of the US Army, who fought in World War II. The “Beige” section was devoted to the African American music of the Harlem Renaissance (Wenning & Bigelow, 1994, par. 17).

In the 1960-s, Duke has also begun to write music for motion pictures. He has conducted a music tour to the East, being appointed by the President’s Cultural Committee and sponsored by the Department of State. His band started performing sacred concerts, which has marked another significant aspect of Duke Ellington’s life: his deep religious faith (Wenning & Bigelow, 1994, par. 20-21).

In addition to the good choice of performers, Duke’s unique blend of rhythms and movements made people love his music. Being, in fact, an amateur, Duke has created the music that has become classic and is regarded as a standard in jazz. “To me,” Duke has once said, “jazz means simply freedom of musical speech” (Tucker & Ellington, 1995, p. 256). It is the right use of that freedom that has made Duke famous.

The Multiple Talents of Duke Ellington

As it was demonstrated, Duke Ellington possessed various talents, as well as he was able to use them in the right way; this combination has made his success possible. Duke was successful as a performer, conductor, recording artist, bandleader, entertainer, and composer.

His initial, early success came to Duke while he was a performer, particularly a pianist. As it was already mentioned, he had a strong educational background regarding the theory and practice of piano music. He has learned about the way, in which piano incorporates into the tune of the whole orchestra.

However, as Duke confessed, he considered himself a conductor rather than a performer; “that’s my instrument,” he said, meaning his band (Cohen, 2010, p. 276). Ellington has mastered the art of conducting to such extent that he could operate his ensemble as if it was a single instrument.

Not only at the stage but also out of it did Duke know how to handle his band. As a bandleader, Ellington has demonstrated impressive leadership talent. He managed to maintain a positive working environment in his band and secure them suitable contacts. At the times, when audio recording was not as sophisticated and available as nowadays, Duke was able to get the finest equipment and ensure the quality of the recording (Cohen, 2010, p. 67).

As a composer, Duke was responsible for serious changes in jazz music. Thank Ellington, jazz has received a more complicated organization. Duke created new instrument combinations and introduced tunes from other music styles and directions such as blues, Latin American music, ragtime, and various European music. It is he who has made jazz a serious music style (Duke Ellington, 2000, par. 2).

Duke’s Songs as the Manifestation of His Talents

The songs and melodies composed by Duke and performed by his band are sufficient proof of his multifaceted and genuine talent. Among the most known and loved songs of Ellington are such pieces as “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Cotton Tail,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”

“In a Sentimental Mood,” composed in 1935, was created as a tune and soon supplemented with lyrics. This composition introduces a listener to the world of sophisticated jazz developed by Duke. In this piece, Ellington has used the complicated technique of counterpoint – a method that makes voices interdependent in harmony but independent in rhythm.

“Cotton Tail” was written in 1940, after Duke’s return from the European tour. At that moment, Duke’s band was already on the top of its popularity and included highly skilled performers. This composition is even more sophisticated: its sax-section riffs are layered and are in tune with choruses. It was also called rule-breaking for “beginning on the ninth and incorporating a flat fifth” (Burlingame, n.d., para. 6).

The 1941-composed “Take the ‘A’ Train” is considered the signature tune of Duke’s band. Duke himself performed the solo piano for this composition. “Take the ‘A’ Train” belongs to the swing style; Duke managed to unite various riffs and rhythmic patterns with breaks, solos, and themes.

“It Doesn’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” is a legendary song, responsible for bringing the word “swing” to regular use. Back in 1931, when Duke wrote this piece, “swing” meant slight changes in a tune’s timing, which gives a “swing feeling.” After being told that customers do not dance if there is no swing, Duke devoted a song to this problem, and it has become the true embodiment of the “swing feeling.”

Fame and Recognition

Duke Ellington has created over two thousand compositions, worked out his unique style, and operated one of the greatest bands in jazz history for half a century. Today, his music is loved and revered by people of various ages, citizenships, and racial backgrounds.

Duke has received numerous prestigious awards, both during his life and after his death. He has earned nine Grammys while still alive, as well as four posthumous Grammys, for his compositions, the band’s performance, and soundtrack albums. France has presented its highest award, the Legion of Honor, to Duke in 1973. He has received Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Nixon and was elected member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1999, he received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. Ellington is also a member of various Halls of Fame such as the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame (Wenning & Bigelow, 1994, par. 6).

Duke’s legacy is preserved by the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts. Multiple memorials at the places somehow connected with the events of Duke’s biography are constructed in his honor. A school of arts was opened at his birthplace to help students receive a strong academic background in arts. Multiple geographic objects have been named after Ellington. Duke has already been a legend in his lifetime; he has become even more of a legend after his death.


Duke Ellington has earned the love and respect of thousands of people due to his unquestionable talents and the skill of using them right. However, his greatest achievement is that he, being a member of a discriminated group and playing music that was considered lowly and immoral, managed to make jazz universally revered and recognized.


Burlingame, S. (n.d.). . Web.

Cohen, H.G. (2010). Duke Ellington’s America. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. Web.

. (n.d.). Web.

. (2000). Web.

Tucker, M., & Ellington, D. (1995). The Duke Ellington Reader. New York City, New York: Oxford University Press. Web.

Wenning, E., & Bigelow, B. (1994). . Web.

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