Having made a name as a jazz musician in his hometown of Washington,
D.C., in the 1920s, Edward "Duke" Kennedy Ellington headed
for the big time—New York City. After a rocky start, he landed
a gig at the Kentucky Club on Broadway. He played that venue with
his orchestra for the next four years.
In 1927, Ellington's orchestra landed a job as the house band at the
racially segregated Cotton Club. Ellington welcomed musicians with
a distinct technique to his orchestra, and highlighted them in his
compositions. His "Concerto for Cootie"—named to honor
trumpet player Charles "Cootie" Williams—was the first
jazz composition in the form of a concerto (a three-movement piece
of music for one or more solo instruments and an orchestra). Ellington
did not stop breaking musical conventions there; he also invented
his own harmonic language.
As the country sank into the Great Depression in October 1929, many
bandleaders had trouble making ends meet. Not Ellington; he flourished.
The 1930s found him caught up in a musical and social whirlwind: In
addition to touring, playing Broadway shows, appearing in movies like
Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life, and broadcasting
on radio, Duke Ellington shattered some longstanding racial barriers
by performing in theaters and hotels that had once been barred to
blacks. That path-breaking style typified his lifelong career.