Name at birth: Edward Kennedy EllingtonEdward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington started as a pool hall piano player and grew to become one of the great figures in American jazz performance. Duke Ellington grew up in a middle-class family in Washington, D.C. He was given piano lessons as a boy, but didn't really take to the instrument until his teenage years, when he heard jazz being played in a local hangout. His nickname of 'Duke' came "from a childhood friend who commented on his elegant manners, bearing, and dress," according to the official site of his estate. As Duke Ellington, he began playing in pool halls and clubs, formed his own band, gained local fame and then moved to New York City. By 1927, the year Ellington turned 28, he was a regular at the famous Cotton Club. One of the first to use classical themes in jazz, Duke Ellington is considered one of the its most innovative composers as well. Many of his later numbers were written with his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn, who wrote Ellington's signature tune "Take the 'A' Train." At the height of his career, Duke Ellington toured the world with his orchestra and composed many standards. His best known numbers include "Mood Indigo," "In A Sentimental Mood," and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." He published his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, in 1973.
Duke Ellington married his high school sweetheart, Edna Thompson, in 1918. They separated in 1938 but never divorced. Their only son, Mercer Ellington (1919-1996), became a well-known jazz trumpeter, composer and bandleader… Stevie Wonder‘s pop hit “Sir Duke” is a tribute to Duke Ellington.
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