Duke Ellington: 'The Bandleader,' Pt. 1

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Duke Ellington, Jan. 1963. i

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Duke Ellington, Jan. 1963.

Duke Ellington, Jan. 1963.

Victor Drees/Getty Images

Next on Jazz Profiles

Preview the next episode of Jazz Profiles: a look at Duke Ellington's 'instrument,' his ensemble of great musicians.

In American music, Duke Ellington stands alone. Over a period of 50 years — from the '20s to the '70s — Ellington led one of history's finest performing ensembles and established himself as one of America's most powerful musical forces. He encountered jazz in its infancy and expanded it into a sophisticated, internationally celebrated art form.

This episode of Jazz Profiles, the third in a series of four, presents Duke Ellington as leader of an institution even the greatest musicians aspired to join. While center stage, his ability to captivate audiences through his music and its exquisite presentation has never been replicated.

Duke Ellington began his career in music as a pianist in his hometown of Washington, D.C., and even then he displayed the qualities that would make him a great bandleader. He was more than a talented composer and musician — he was a handsome young man who exuded a quiet confidence and a magnetism that impressed both audiences and contemporaries.

Ellington's good friend, drummer Sonny Greer, saw Duke's leadership potential and joined him when Duke moved to New York. Greer remained a member of Duke's band for years, setting a precedent that dozens of great musicians would follow. In New York, Ellington took over Elmer Snowden's Novelty Orchestra, which he rechristened The Washingtonians.

As a conductor, composer and arranger, Ellington was almost entirely a self-made success. With little formal training, the young bandleader became a keen observer of other professional orchestras, studying them in Broadway pits during daytime show rehearsals, then emulating their arrangements and techniques with his own ensemble at night.

Ellington had an aura that extended beyond the bandstand and captivated his audience — especially the women. In 1926, promoter Irving Mills spotted the potential in Ellington's sophisticated form of showmanship. Together, Mills and Ellington worked to enhance the band's image, drawing on Ellington's visual sense to select special touches such as elegant stage attire. Mills helped to land the group a gig at Harlem's famous Cotton Club, where the band would remain from 1927 through 1931.

At the Cotton Club, Ellington refined his sense of pacing and showmanship. Musically, he was constantly exploring new ideas. Once the band had won the crowd over with his hits, Ellington would experiment with sounds and arrangements, using his audience as a sounding board.

Ellington's primary focus was his music, and he usually delegated or ignored business and administrative matters. Not a disciplinarian by nature, Ellington rarely reprimanded musicians who caused trouble. However, he instinctively knew how to turn such problems to his advantage. If musicians were late for the opening set, he would start with smaller ensembles, playing pieces tailored for such a setting. By gradually expanding the ensemble and building towards a crescendo, Ellington could mesmerize audiences.

By 1940, Ellington's orchestra was in increasingly greater demand throughout the US and overseas. His sophisticated stage presentation thoroughly engaged audiences. More important to Ellington was the caliber of jazz musicians he had assembled and was continuing to attract.

His own "instrument" was the band itself, a group that included greats like saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster, trumpeters Cootie Williams and Bubber Miley, trombonists Juan Tizol and "Tricky Sam" Nanton, clarinetist Barney Bigard, drummer Louis Bellson — the list goes on and on.

Click here to view the playlist.

Link to NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library:

Duke Ellington: 'The Duke at His Best'

Duke Ellington: 'Such Sweet Thunder'

Duke Ellington: 'Duke Ellington & John Coltrane'

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