Jazz Profiles from NPR
Duke Ellington: The Pianist
Produced by Robert Levi

Duke Ellington  

The piano was at the heart and soul of Duke Ellington’s approach to making music. In addition to his supreme musical gifts as a bandleader, composer and arranger, showman and entertainer, Ellington also left an indelible mark as one of the seminal pianists in jazz.

Listen to biographer John Edward Hasse, flutist James Newton, and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis reflect on Duke's piano playing

Though he took lessons from the age of five, Ellington’s interest in playing piano surged during his early teenage years, as he became acquainted with the “stride” style. He hung around great stride players like James P. Johnson, Fats Waller and Willie “the Lion” Smith, and watched their technique with fascination. At age 15, Ellington wrote his first composition, “Soda Fountain Rag.”

Listen to author and pianist Dempsey Travis on Ellington's childhood

I am a piano player -- a rehearsal piano player and jive-time conductor bandleader. My thing is having fun.
--Duke Ellington  

Ellington's keen business sense and versatility helped him get paying piano gigs with a very limited repertoire. He found he could play numbers more than once if he changed the tempo throughout the evening. His development as a self-taught composer would further strengthen his relationship with the piano.

Listen to music scholar Gunther Schuller explain how Ellington used the piano for composing

For Ellington, the piano was usually a means to an end. His playing was integral to his rhythm section, and he used it to galvanize his band. At his piano, Ellington would set tempos, signal band members, and often establish the tone and color of the next piece with one of his marvelous introductions.

Listen to drummer Louis Bellson and trombonist John Sanders recall how Ellington used the piano for conducting the orchestra

While Ellington’s work as a composer and bandleader spurred his development as a pianist, he would also achieve renown as one of the greatest accompanists. He recorded magnificient duets with trumpeter Louis Armstrong, bassist Jimmy Blanton, saxophonist Johnny Hodges and his composing companion, pianist Billy Strayhorn.

Listen to trumpeter Wynton Marsalis describe Ellington's gift as an accompanying pianist

Money Jungle  

In 1962, Ellington joined bebop drummer Max Roach and bassist Charles Mingus to record the epochal album Money Jungle. Ellington didn't bring any music for the historic date; instead he wrote tunes specifically for Mingus and Roach on the spot.

Listen to Max Roach and pianist Billy Taylor discuss the making of Money Jungle (Blue Note)

Despite Ellington’s outstanding skills as an accompanist, there is some disagreement about his work as a soloist. Ellington himself did not aspire to imitate the incredible virtuosity of great soloists like Art Tatum and Earl Hines, but his own innovations would influence many other great pianists, including Thelonious Monk and Randy Weston.

Listen to Marsalis, granddaughter Mercedes Ellington, and writer Barry Ulanov tell how Ellington understood the role of the pianist

While he usually composed for his orchestra, Ellington did compose for solo piano, if only on rare occasions. He wrote “A Single Petal of a Rose,”in 1958 to honor England’s Queen Elizabeth. Nevertheless, as both a composer and a pianist, Ellington remains firmly in place among the “royalty” of great jazz musicians.


View the Duke Ellington: The Pianist show playlist


ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for The Duke at His Best

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

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Such Sweet Thunder

Read the CD review for Duke Ellington's Love Songs

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


More InfoBrowse the Official Duke Ellington Web site