Edward Kennedy 'Duke' Ellington was born in Washington at the end of the nineteenth century during the height of the ragtime era. His piano teacher, the aptly-named Miss Clinkscales, may have disapproved, but at sixteen he had written his own Soda Fountain Rag, the start of a sixty-year career as a composer.
He had also acquired his nickname 'Duke', from his dapper appearance as he worked as a soda-jerk at Washington's Poodle Dog Cafe. In 1927, Ellington got his big break and moved into the Cotton Club in Harlem.
Run by gangsters, featuring a dazzling floor show built around a jungle theme, and attended by well-to-do white audiences seeking some exotic night life, the Cotton Club offered a platform for Ellington to develop his career, and broadcasts, films and discs for several labels followed in profusion.
By 1931, Ellington's Cotton Club orchestra had become the leading big band in the USA. In the mid-1930s, Ellington began to experiment with large scale compositions, such as Reminiscing in Tempo and Creole Rhapsody.
At the end of the decade he had assembled his finest band, featuring Ben Webster's tough and lyrical tenor sax, and the tragically short-lived bassist Jimmy Blanton, who introduced a new rhythmic freedom. In 1939, pianist and composer Billy Strayhorn joined Ellington, and the two men found they had a natural talent for writing music together, continuing. until Strayhorn's death in 1967.
Strayhorn wrote the band's theme Take The A-Train. In 1943, at Carnegie Hall Ellington premiered his 45-minute Black Brown and Beige, and although its lukewarm critical reaction briefly deterred him, he began a sequence of further long pieces with the Deep South Suite in 1946.
From the 1950s, Ellington toured internationally, wrote many long suites, and also composed for films and the stage. His best-known film score was Anatomy of a Murder (1959). In his last years, Ellington wrote much sacred music, which he performed in churches and cathedrals round the world. His other extended suites were inspired by ideas as different as New Orleans music, Shakespeare and visits to Asia.