Ellington immersed himself in music from an early age– both as a curious student and as a mischievous, under-aged intruder in the piano bars and billiards clubs of his native Washington, D.C. By his late teens, he had recruited a band and was regularly playing at dances for congressional delegates and diplomats. In his early twenties, he moved to the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. This was the first step in his ascent towards legendary status, and, before long, frenzied and empowered audiences were dancing The Charleston to Ellington’s music. His ensemble’s tenure as house band of The Cotton Club in the late 1920s established him as a central figure of The Harlem Renaissance, a movement that he helped bring to a fever pitch. His appeal to audiences of every color made Ellington one of the hottest tickets in town and set the stage for his growing success as a recording artist.
The decades that followed the Roaring Twenties were very lucrative, leading Ellington on tours through Europe and to many collaborations with the star singers of the time, including Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald to name a few. Great American Songbook classics like “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and “Take the A Train” served as the soundtrack for the era and raised Ellington to celebrity status. He tirelessly built upon his repertory and became the first African American to score for a major film soundtrack with 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder. He toured often and recorded a prodigious catalogue. He is also noted for having made numerous innovations as a composer and recording artist even into the latter stages of his career, integrating elements from Asian and Latin music into his own evolving blend of orchestral jazz.
By the end of his fifty-year career, Ellington was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and an honorary PhD from the Berklee College of Music. Perhaps above all else, he witnessed the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This marked the dawn of a promising new future for all African Americans and a landmark victory for equal rights activists in the U.S. Ellington spoke his last words in May of 1974: “Music is how I live, why I live, and how I will be remembered.” The Duke Ellington School of the Arts was established in Washington, D.C. that same year and to this day the high school offers its students a world-class education in the arts with Ellington’s legacy and influence ever at heart.