Arguably the most important figure in twentieth century music, Duke Ellington's impact on the jazz world is indisputable. His innovative styles and original compositions inspired many artists over the years. Such successful bandleaders as Woody Herman and Charlie Barnet name Ellington as their chief influence. Ellington was also one of the few artists to successfully make the change from the hot music of the 1920s to swing in the 1930s, and he continued to contribute to the musical landscape in the post-war era.
Though Ellington studied piano as a youth, music was not his main interest early in life. His original plan was to become a commercial artist. His love of jazz, however, eventually led him back to the keyboard. He began to study under several local Washington-area jazz pianists and soon found work in various clubs. Three months before he was to graduate from school he dropped out and turned professional musician.
In 1917 Ellington formed his first outfit, The Duke's Serenaders. The group became popular around their local Washington, DC, area and was often invited to play at diplomatic functions. In 1922 Ellington traveled to New York City, where he played under Wilbur Sweatman. The visit proved unproductive and he returned to Washington, where he joined Elmer Snowden. In 1923 Snowden took his group to New York. An argument over missing funds, however, eventually led band members to walk out on Snowden. Refusing to give up they elected Ellington as their new leader and named themselves the Washingtonians.
Ellington and his new group began to play at various clubs around the New York City area. In 1924 they recorded their first song. Key to the early group was trumpet player Bubber Miley, who gave the band its signature sound with his plunger technique. In 1926 the orchestra signed a management deal with song publisher Irving Mills. This association helped attract national interest. The band's lucky break finally came when King Oliver turned down an offer from the Cotton Club to set his group up as the house band. Ellington was then invited to take the job, and he accepted. The resulting national radio exposure made the orchestra an instant sensation.
Ellington switched from playing hot jazz to swing music during the mid-1930s and continued to find success. In reality Ellington's music had always had a swing style to it, and such early swing kings as Benny Goodman and the Dorsey Brothers owe much to his genius. Ellington never acquired the popularity that his contemporaries enjoyed, however. Part of this was due to the fact that black orchestras had less opportunity to be heard than their white counterparts, but a big part of Ellington's failure to attain superstar status was that he rarely catered to popular tastes. Much of his music was original and challenging. The latest hit songs and novelty tunes had little room in the Ellington repertoire.
Throughout his career Ellington attracted top musicians. Many of the players who worked for him were extremely loyal and remained with the group for long periods of time. This allowed Ellington to write arrangements specifically for certain musicians, thus giving him the ability to exploit each artist's strongpoints. Among those who served faithfully were Cootie Williams, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Blanton, Ben Webster, Billy Strayhorn, Juan Tizol, and Ray Nance. Vocalists who worked with Ellington over the years include Ivie Anderson, Herb Jeffries, Jean Eldridge, Betty Roche, Al Hibbler, Kay Davis, Joya Sherrill, and Maria Ellington. (Maria was no relation to the Duke. She later became Nat King Cole's wife.)
Ellington was one of the few artists who managed to remain relevant throughout his career. Always trying to stay contemporary, during the 1950s and 1960s he worked with such modern jazz artists as John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. He continued to lead his orchestra up until his death from lung cancer in 1974.