From his rise to fame in the 1920s to his death in 1974, Duke Ellington loomed large over the world of music, proving through every composition—be it a jazz standard like “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” or a reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite—that jazz as a genre deserved all the respect and acclaim of its classical counterpart. Here are nine facts you might not have known about the legendary musician.
April 29, 1899, Washington, D.C.
May 24, 1974, New York, New York
“It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing),” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Satin Doll”
1. Duke Ellington’s parents both played the piano.
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, D.C. in 1899, to James Edward (“J.E.”) and Daisy Ellington. “Because of the fact that no one else but my sister Ruth had a mother as great and as beautiful as mine, it is difficult to put into understandable words an accurate description of my mother,” Ellington wrote in his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress. He thought similarly highly of his father, who worked mostly as a butler and caterer. Ellington described him as “a party man, a great dancer (ballroom, that is), a connoisseur of vintages, and unsurpassed in creating an aura of conviviality.”
Both of Ellington’s parents played the piano: His mother favored songs “so pretty they’d make me cry,” while his father reproduced “operatic stuff” by ear. They enrolled Ellington in piano lessons during grade school with a teacher named Mrs. Clinkscales, who’d later get to see her former student perform in a Ziegfeld show in New York City. As Ellington remembered it, “I came on and I could see her up in the balcony, up in the mezzanine, waving a handkerchief.”
2. Theodore Roosevelt watched his baseball games.
But Ellington’s childhood passion wasn’t piano: It was baseball. He skived off many a piano lesson to play, and even got hired as a snack vendor at the Washington Nationals’ stadium so he could watch their games. He and his pals could often be found playing ball on a 16th Street tennis court, where then-President Theodore Roosevelt would stop by during one of his frequent horseback rides.
“When he got ready to go, he would wave and we would wave at him,” Ellington recalled. “That was Teddy Roosevelt—just him and his horse, nobody guarding him.”
3. A social-climbing buddy nicknamed Ellington “Duke.”
It’s often said that Ellington was nicknamed “Duke” because he was well-mannered and dapper in youth. While it’s possible that those qualities helped the name stick, Ellington didn’t actually credit them as the inspiration behind it. According to his autobiography, the sobriquet was coined not long before he entered high school by a pal named Edgar McEntree—a “socially uphill” and “rather fancy guy who liked to dress well.”
“I think he felt that in order for me to be eligible for his constant companionship I should have a title. So he named me Duke,” Ellington explained.
4. He wrote his first song while stuck at home with a cold.
In 1914, Ellington saw ragtime pianist Harvey Brooks perform in Philadelphia. “I cannot tell you what that music did to me,” Ellington later said. “I said right then, ‘That’s how I would like to play a piano … .” Brooks even imparted some musical tips to the aspiring musician, who could soon play songs by ear alone.
Not long after that, Ellington spent a couple weeks stuck at home with a cold, during which time he composed a song of his own: “Soda Fountain Rag.” The title was inspired by his job at a local soda fountain, the Poodle Dog Café. Ellington began playing it for his peers at parties, along with his second song, “What You Gonna Do When the Bed Breaks Down?,” which he described as “a pretty good ‘hug-and-rubbin’’ crawl.”
5. Harlem’s Cotton Club helped launch his career to new heights.
Ellington spent the rest of the 1910s booking gigs and meeting fellow musicians in D.C., and those inroads eventually opened up opportunities for him and his bandmates—known then as the Washingtonians—in Philadelphia and New York City. Their big break came in December 1927: an audition at Harlem’s illustrious Cotton Club.
They were hired, and for the next few years Ellington and his now-expanded orchestra wowed the establishment’s all-white crowd. This was at the height of the white infiltration of Harlem’s nightlife scene, and the fact that the Cotton Club had barred Black people (except for the occasional celebrity) from enjoying performances by the era’s leading Black entertainers was understandably contentious. Langston Hughes described it as “a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites.”
But Ellington did articulate that his stint at the Cotton Club was “of the utmost significance” because the shows were broadcast over the radio, which helped his orchestra attract a much broader—international, even—audience. They made time between performances to appear on Broadway and film a movie, and the group eventually concluded their Cotton Club run in February 1931 to go on tour.
6. Ellington’s son saved “Take the ‘A’ Train” from the trash.
In Music Is My Mistress, Ellington neatly summarized his relationship with frequent collaborator Billy Strayhorn as such: “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine.”
Strayhorn composed many songs famously performed by Ellington’s orchestra, including jazz standard “Take the ‘A’ Train.” It was 1939, before the two began working together, and Strayhorn was planning to visit Ellington in New York in the hopes that Ellington would take him on. The esteemed bandleader had given Strayhorn directions to Harlem, including the recommendation that he take the A train. Strayhorn composed “Take the ‘A’ Train” to impress Ellington, which it did, and Strayhorn relocated from Pittsburgh to New York to join Ellington’s orchestra soon afterwards.
But “Take the ‘A’ Train” ended up in the scrap pile due to Strayhorn’s worry that it sounded too derivative of jazz pianist Fletcher Henderson. And there it stayed until January 1941, when a battle between two music rights organizations prevented broadcasters from airing songs composed by Ellington. So Strayhorn and Ellington’s son, Mercer, holed up in a room and came up with all new material for the orchestra.
“It could have taken us twenty years to get the old man to make room for that much of our music, but all of a sudden we had this freak opportunity,” Mercer is quoted as saying in Stuart Nicholson’s Reminiscing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington. “At one point [Strayhorn] was having some sort of trouble and I pulled a piece out of the garbage. I said, ‘What’s wrong with this?’ And he said, ‘That’s an old thing I was trying to do something with, but it’s too much like Fletcher Henderson.’ … I flattened it out anyway and put it in the pile with the rest of the stuff.”
That song, of course, was “Take the ‘A’ Train,” which the orchestra recorded the following month.
7. He added a non-segregation clause to his contracts in the 1960s.
Ellington channeled the Black American experience into works like “Creole Rhapsody” and Black, Brown and Beige—the latter an ambitious and nearly hour-long musical chronicle of Black American history that Ellington debuted at his first Carnegie Hall concert in 1943.
But social justice wasn’t only woven into the fabric of Ellington’s compositions themselves. He also used his platform to help organize benefit concerts for the NAACP and other civil rights initiatives; and by the 1950s, he’d begun pushing for integration at concerts, occasionally even refusing to perform at a segregated venue. In 1961, he formally added the following non-segregation clause to his contracts:
“It is mutually agreed and understood between all parties concerned, that the artist or artists have the prerogative of canceling this contract, if in any instance an audience is segregated because of race or color.”
8. He won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
In 1965, the three jurors of the Pulitzer Prize for Music couldn’t decide on a standalone work they felt was worthy of the prize, so they presented the Pulitzer Prize Board with an alternative: that a special citation be awarded to Duke Ellington, “who has made many notable contributions to American music over a period of 30 years or more with compositions of high artistic quality couched mainly in the idiom of jazz,” in the words of juror and music critic Ronald Eyer.
But the board declined to honor Ellington, which many criticized as yet another example of the organization’s failure to recognize the importance of jazz (or basically any other music genre that wasn’t classical). Ellington told music critic Nat Hentoff that he was “hardly surprised” at the snub: “By and large, in this country, jazz has always been the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.”
The Pulitzer Prize Board did finally give Ellington a special posthumous citation in 1999, to celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday. In 2022, jazz historian Ted Gioia launched a petition to “Give Duke Ellington the Pulitzer Prize He Was Denied in 1965.” It’s been signed by a number of Pulitzer Prize–winning musicians, including John Adams, David Lang, and Caroline Shaw, but hasn’t reached its signature goal just yet.
9. April 29 is Duke Ellington Day in New York City.
Washington, D.C. has paid tribute to Duke Ellington by erecting a statue in his likeness, naming a performing arts high school after him, and depicting him on a quarter. New York City also boasts a statue of the musician, located just above Central Park, and in 2009, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared that April 29—the Duke’s birthday—would officially be known as Duke Ellington Day in the Big Apple. For the inaugural event, the Duke Ellington Orchestra performed in a restored and fully operative A Train subway car from 1939.