Jazz Profiles from NPR
Duke Ellington: The Bandleader, part 1
Produced by Robert Levi and Molly Murphy

Duke Ellington  

Duke Ellington, the bandleader, was an icon. He assembled one of the greatest orchestras in the history of jazz and kept it going for almost 50 years. Ellington developed jazz orchestration to levels never before imagined, and he remained an ubiquitous presence in American music.

Listen to drummer Louie Bellson, trumpeter Clark Terry, and singer Joya Sherrill describe being in Duke Ellington's orchestra

The Duke Ellington Orchestra was an institution, something even the greatest musicians aspired to be part of. Meanwhile, Duke’s ability to captivate audiences and capture an exhilarating array of emotions through his music and its exquisite presentation has never been replicated.

Ellington began his career as a piano-playing sideman in his hometown, Washington, DC. But, early on, he displayed certain qualities that would make him a great bandleader. Ellington was more than a talented composer and musician, he was a handsome young man who exuded a quiet confidence and a magnetism that impressed established musicians like bandleader Cab Calloway. Ellington’s good friend, drummer Sonny Greer, saw Duke’s leadership potential, and joined him in a move from Washington to New York. Sonny would remain a member of Duke’s band for years—a precedent that dozens of great musicians would follow.

In New York, Ellington took over Elmer Snowden’s Novelty Orchestra, which he rechristened as 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 constant observer of professional orchestras. He would study them in the pits at Broadway shows for hours during the day, then emulate their different arrangements and techniques with his own ensemble at night.

Listen to composer and conductor Gunther Schuller explain how Ellington learned the art of bandleading

Duke's high concept of himself relates back to the way his mother treated him. And the way she reminded him that he was something very special. She loved him to death.

-- writer and pianist, Dempsey Travis  

Ellington had an aura that extended beyond the bandstand and permeated the audience, especially women. In 1926, promoter Irving Mills spotted the potential in Ellington’s sophisticated form of showmanship. Together, Mills and Ellington enhanced the band’s image, drawing on Ellington’s sense of the visual to select special touches such as elegant stage attire. Mills helped land an extended engagement at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club, from 1927 through 1931.

Listen to pianist and educator Dr. Billy Taylor explain how Ellington connected to his audience, even in the racially-divided Cotton Club

While 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 audience over with his hits, Ellington would use them as a sounding board, experimenting with new arrangements and his innovative approach to jazz orchestration.

Listen to conductor David Berger and trombonist John Sanders tell how Ellington used the audience as a sounding-board for new material

Clark Terry  

Ellington delegated business matters to Mills. Duke’s focus was his music, and it consumed him around the clock. Duke was not a disciplinarian by nature, but his musicians had such respect for him that they usually went out of their way to accommodate his demanding schedule.

Listen to Terry (left), Bellson, vocalist Herb Jeffries explain how the soft-hearted Ellington used his interpersonal skills to get the best out of his band

Ellington had a paternal instinct, but was often too soft-hearted to reprimand musicians who caused trouble. But he knew how to turn even adverse circumstances 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 created a unique new form of presentation which mesmerized the audience.

Listen to biographer John Edward Hasse and singer Joya Sherrill explain how Ellington rehearsed his orchestra

By 1940, Ellington’s orchestra was in increasingly greater demand throughout the US and overseas. His stage presentation was sophisticated and thoroughly engaged audiences. More importantly to Ellington, he had assembled and was continuing to attract some of the finest musicians in jazz. His own musical instrument was a band 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.

Listen to conductor and educator David Baker and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis explain how Ellington compositional method


View Duke Ellington: The Bandleader, part 1 show playlist


ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Duke Ellington's Such Sweet Thunder

More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org