Pianist, Composer, Band Leader
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was an American jazz composer, pianist, and band leader who has been one of the most influential figures in jazz, if not in all American music. As a composer and a band leader especially, Ellington's reputation has increased since his death, with thematic repackagings of his signature music often becoming best-sellers.
A man of suave demeanor and puckish wit that masked occasional brusqueness, Ellington preferred to call his style and sound "American music" rather than just jazz, and liked to describe those who impressed him as "beyond category," including and especially many of the musicians who served with his orchestra. Some of them were considered among the giants of jazz in their own right—particularly reedmen Johnny Hodges, Barney Bigard, Ben Webster, Harry Carney, and Paul Gonsalves; trumpeters Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams, Clark Terry, William "Cat" Anderson, and Ray Nance (who also played violin), trombonists Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton, Lawrence Brown, and Juan Tizol, bassists Jimmy Blanton and Oscar Pettiford, as well as drummers Sonny Greer, Louis Bellson, and Sam Woodyard.
Many of these musicians remained with Ellington's orchestra for decades. While many were noteworthy in their own right, it was Ellington's musical genius that melded them into one of the most well-known orchestral units in the history of jazz. His compositions were often written specifically for the style and skills of these individuals, such as "Jeep's Blues" for Johnny Hodges, "Concerto for Cootie" (Do Nothing 'Til You Hear From Me) for Cootie Williams and "The Mooche" for Tricky Sam Nanton. He also recorded songs written by his bandsmen, such as Juan Tizol's "Caravan" and "Perdido" which brought the "Spanish Tinge" to big-band jazz.
Ellington was one of the twentieth century's best-known African-American celebrities. He recorded for many American record companies, and appeared in several films. Ellington and his orchestra toured the United States and Europe regularly before and after World War II.