Duke Ellington’s last words were, “Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered”. He was an American composer, pianist, and jazz-orchestra leader with a career that spanned more than 50 years. Ellington led his orchestra from 1923 until his death. He was born April 29, 1899 and passed along on May 24, 1974. He was known as a key participant of the Harlem Renaissance era and his legacy lives on in Harlem and all around the world.
For this post I chose two video performances “Take The A Train” live in Harlem 1964, and a video of Ellington and his band performing “It Don’t Mean A Thing” back in 1943.
Duke Ellington married his high school sweetheart, Edna Thompson, on July 2, 1918, when he was 19. Shortly after their marriage, on March 11, 1919 Edna gave birth to their only son, Mercer Kennedy Ellington. Ellington was joined in New York City by his wife and son in the late twenties, but the couple soon permanently separated. According to her obituary in Jet magazine, she was “homesick for Washington” and returned (she died in 1967). In 1938 he met and moved in with Cotton Club employee Beatrice “Evie” Ellis, who with with him during his Cotton Club years in Harlem. The relationship with Ellis, though stormy, continued after Ellington met Fernandae de Castro Monte in the early 1960s. Ellington supported both women for the rest of his life.
At his funeral, attended by over 12,000 people at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Harlem, Ella Fitzgerald summed up the occasion, “It’s a very sad day. A genius has passed”. He was laid to rest in the Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York City. His reputation increased after his death and the Pulitzer Prize Board bestowed on him a special posthumous honor in 1999.
VIDEO: Duke Ellington Live in Harlem “Take The A Train” (1964) features Ernie Shepard on vocals.
VIDEO: Duke Ellington – It Don’t Mean A Thing (1943)