Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington

1899-1974 / Composer, musician, bandleader

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.