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date: 24 February 2020

Ellington, Duke [Edward Kennedy ]free

  • Marcello Piras

(b Washington, DC, April 29, 1899; d New York, NY, May 24, 1974). American pianist, composer, lyricist, and bandleader. A leading figure in jazz and one of America’s greatest composers.

1. Youth, 1899–26.

Ellington’s parents belonged to Washington’s black bourgeoisie. James Edward Ellington, a butler who had temporary jobs at the White House, played operatic arias on the piano by ear, Daisy Kennedy played parlor pieces from the sheet; composers Will Marion Cook and will(iam) henry bennett Vodery were family acquaintances. Ellington, nicknamed “Duke” by childhood friends for his elegant demeanor, took piano lessons at seven from Marietta Clinkscales, Mrs. Cook’s accompanist, but quickly grew bored and, some time later, enrolled at a commercial art institute. As a teenager, he attended dance parties and pool rooms, where ragtime awakened his interest in piano playing; by 1914 he composed by ear “The Soda Fountain Rag.” After being fired from various bands for not reading music, he dropped art school, studied with Oliver “Doc” Perry (piano, theory) and Henry Grant (harmony), and became a music professional, while still working as a sign painter.

In 1917 he founded his first band, The Duke’s Colored Syncopators, including Arthur Whetsel (trumpet), Otto Hardwick (saxophones), and Sonny Greer (drums, vocal), and was soon in great demand at social events. The following year he married high school friend Edna Thompson; their son Mercer (1919–96) was named after Will Marion Cook’s son. They separated shortly afterwards; Ellington never married again. In 1923 the Syncopators made it to New York; re-christened “The Washingtonians,” they landed a four-year job in floor shows with singers and dancers at the Hollywood Inn, later Club Kentucky. Their earliest records (1924) showcase bubber Miley (cornet), a major influence on Ellington, alongside clumsy, immature arrangements.

A musician, artist, and lyricist, Ellington felt drawn to musical theater, and resorted to studying composition and orchestration with Cook and Vodery. His first show was Chocolate Kiddies (1925). Meanwhile, his Club Kentucky band gradually grew to 10 pieces, including Joe Nanton (trombone) and Fred Guy (banjo), and received glowing reviews, although their records remained undistinguished.

2. Success, 1926–31.

“East St.Louis Toodle-o” (late 1926) marks a giant step, suggesting that Ellington was finally allowed to record his best repertoire. Powerful themes, some of which were brought by Miley, are cast within uncluttered, colorful orchestral frames—raucous or piercing brass mutes, strident reed mixtures, unveiling an entirely new tonal palette. Miley’s and Nanton’s ominous solos often explore dirty, growling sonorities. Ellington’s repertoire alternated peppy dance routines (“Birmingham Breakdown”) and miniature ballets (“Black and Tan Fantasy”). By this time, Ellington also met publisher Irving Mills, whose long managerial association (1927–39) turned him into a celebrity.

From November 1927 to June 1931, Ellington worked at the Cotton Club, a Harlem venue for wealthy white clientele, which sported jungle images painted on the walls. The band was reinforced by Barney Bigard (clarinet), Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges (baritone and alto saxophones), and Juan Tizol (valve trombone), while Cootie Williams replaced Miley. It furnished colorful musical foils to ballets (“The Mystery Song,” “Echoes of the Jungle”) and dance numbers (“Cotton Club Stomp”), yet Ellington also began penning descriptive sketches, such as “Black Beauty,” a portrait of the deceased theatrical star, Florence Mills, and lyrical “mood” pieces, like the haunting “Mood Indigo.” He even tried his hand at a more extended composition, the eight-minute Creole Rhapsody. These were the genres that were to form the main currents of his work for decades.

3. Fame, 1932–42.

Ellington faced the Depression better than most. He added a third trombone, Lawrence Brown, and his best singer ever, Ivie Anderson, who, early in 1932, delivered an infectious hit, “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” foretelling the new emphasis on swing rhythm. In June, Ellington became affiliated with Freemasonry. In times of saccharine pop songs, he was accused of betraying jazz by composing the languid “Sophisticated Lady,” which later rose to evergreen status. “Lightnin’,” inspired by a locomotive, “Harlem Speaks,” a busy neighborhood sketch, and Tizol’s Caribbean “Moonlight Fiesta” inaugurated three new subgenres in his opus; he also began refashioning his older hits in new arrangements or medleys. The band began undertaking long domestic tours, reaching well into the South; it used to travel in train coaches, also serving as dormitories, in order to avoid discrimination in hotels.

International recognition came in 1933 with a European tour including London and Paris, where Ellington’s music was acclaimed for its artistic merit. Among his new compositions there were “Daybreak Express,” a stunningly virtuosic train depiction, the melancholy “Solitude” and “Saddest Tale,” where he first appeared as narrator, and a potent score for the award-winning two-reel, Symphony in Black, starring teenage Billie Holiday. In 1935, after composing “In a Sentimental Mood,” often considered his best melody, Ellington’s inspiration stalled when his mother died. There followed Reminiscing in Tempo, a 12-minute kaleidoscope of images and memories, severely chastised by those same English critics for whom he had written it. He decided for the moment to confine his compositional ambitions to three-minute records, penning concise “concertos” (“Echoes of Harlem,” for Cootie Williams; “Clarinet Lament,” for Bigard). The only exception was the six-minute blues fantasia, Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue. Swing was now in full gear, but Ellington felt distant, and limited himself to launching four small-group record series, formally headed by Williams, Stewart, Bigard, and Hodges. His main hit was Juan Tizol’s exotic “Caravan.” Meanwhile, he worked on a never-completed opera, Boola, a cavalcade through the history of blacks from Africa to the future.

Ellington’s records, issued on Irving Mills’ small labels, were generating low sales, and he experienced a passing crisis. Early in 1939 he hired billy Strayhorn as second pianist, composer, arranger (especially for singers), and lyricist. An academically trained musician, an ardent Ellingtonian, and a creator in his own right, Strayhorn developed a lifelong symbiosis with him. A second European tour reanimated Ellington, who was welcomed everywhere. Back in the United States, he made drastic moves: hiring Ben Webster (tenor saxophone, a fifth reed man and a powerful solo voice), discovering young Jimmy Blanton (who pioneered new horizons for the bass as a soloist and as a driving accompanist), and cutting ties with Irving Mills. There followed a cascade of masterpieces, often regarded as Ellington’s zenith, ranging from the voodoo sketch, “Ko-Ko,” to the shining “Concerto for Cootie.” Some live performances are also preserved, most noticeably the one from Fargo, North Dakota (1940), recorded soon after trumpeter Ray Nance had replaced Cootie Williams. In 1941, Strayhorn contributed “Take the ‘A’ Train,” quickly adopted as the band’s signature. Jump for Joy, a daring interracial revue “with social demands as a potent spice,” was staged in California, to a mild reception. There were depatures as well, as Blanton and Bigard left the band.

4. Experiments, 1943–51.

In 1942 Carnegie Hall contracted Ellington to give one concert per season, each time premiering an extended work. For the first concert, Duke drew from Boola to compose Black, Brown and Beige, a 48-minute symphonic suite à la Rimsky-Korsakov, a musical narrative of black history in the United States, of Romantic scale and grandeur. Critics were perplexed. Ellington gave up performing the entire work again, although chunks were recorded and entered the band’s book, most notably the religious theme, “Come Sunday.” The Deep South Suite, an enigmatic tale of social injustice, the Liberian Suite, a much underrated Masonic work, and the humorous The Tattooed Bride were premiered in the following years. As Ellington increasingly turned to large works, his writing achieved complexity, thickness, and grandiloquence, while short pieces declined in quality. However, long compositions proved hard to digest for jazz audiences; hence he occasionally opted to concoct suites by stringing together several short movements, often co-composed with Strayhorn. The best example is The Perfume Suite, a baffling yet powerful juxtaposition of opposites (love/violence, naïveté/sophistication). In those years, Ellington only produced one hit, “I’m beginning to see the light”; however, extended works and Carnegie Hall concerts helped increase his prestige and income. He also tried another racially integrated musical comedy, Beggar’s Holiday, loosely based on John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, which was more appreciated for its music than for its wobbly script.

Ellington’s aim at expanding jazz composition paralleled a period tendency to stretch the limits of jazz, well apparent in Gillespie’s Cubano Be-Cubano Bop, Davis’ “Moon Dreams,” Kenton’s “Thermopylae,” Hawkins’ “Picasso,” and Tristano’s “Intuition.” Ellington’s contributions to this adventurous time included “Transblucency” and “On a Turquoise Cloud,” employing Kay Davis’ coloratura soprano voice in ecstatic wordless arabesques, after Rakhmaninov’s example; an angular two-piano piece, “Tonk”; the sardonic pointillism of “The Clothed Woman”; and a tongue-in-cheek bow to Prokofiev, Monologue (Pretty and the Wolf), with Duke as the narrator of an adult fairy tale.

However, jazz innovations, the decline of big bands as a viable dancing medium, and the rise of singers triggered a general crisis. Ellington’s band fared well until 1951. Webster left (1943), Hardwick left and Nanton passed away (1946); new arrivals included Jimmy Hamilton (clarinet), Russell Procope (reeds), Al Sears (tenor saxophone), the altissimo specialist, Cat Anderson (trumpet), and Oscar Pettiford (bass). Its schedule still included two European tours (1948, limited to England and six musicians; 1950, full personnel), after all big band competitors had disbanded. Then, growing commercial pressures from record majors led Ellington, like others, to found a short-lived label, Mercer Records (1950). Two works crowned those experimental years: The Controversial Suite, with its futuristic second part, “Later”; and Harlem, a dense tone poem for jazz orchestra, plus optional symphony orchestra, often considered his best large work.

5. Eclipse, 1952–5.

By this point crisis loomed large. In 1951, Lawrence Brown, Hodges, and Greer quit. The swing band format had become outdated; jazz was increasingly focusing on solos, and social dance drifted toward Latin rhythms. The market asked for lighter fare, Ellington had to yield to it, and repertory deteriorated. He only had one hit, “Satin Doll.” His finest accomplishment was an LP, Piano Reflections, displaying his surprisingly updated piano style. This was consistent with a general rejuvenation of the band—new voices such as Paul Gonsalves (tenor sax), Louis Bellson (drums), and Clark Terry (trumpet) had brought a taste of modernity. Finally, in 1955 Ellington composed Night Creature, a colorful, beautifully integrated ballet for jazz-plus-symphony orchestra, heralding his comeback.

6. Resurgence, 1956–64.

By the mid-1950s, jazz festivals began offering an alternative to both the commercial compromise of club, hotel, and ballroom dates, and concert hall etiquette. The 1956 Newport festival was the springboard of Ellington’s second youth. The jazz world rediscovered him; his organization became a perpetually traveling act, giving concerts in Europe and a mix of dance dates and concerts in the United States. Every night, audiences would enjoy old and new pieces, a medley of evergreens, and excerpts from extended works. The return of Hodges, Brown, and Cootie Williams, plus the arrival of Sam Woodyard (drums), ensured a powerful, homogeneous personnel, which stayed almost intact for years. Also, as the 12” LP became standard, Ellington began to record without time boundaries. Some works were planned as concept albums—for example, Such Sweet Thunder, a gallery of witty, touching Shakespearian characters.

Ellington’s scores were now more sparse and light. Masterful episodes abound: visionary musical landscapes in The Queen’s Suite; powerful choral writing in My People, verging on rap in “King Fit the Battle of Alabam’”; forays into the avant garde in Anatomy of a Murder and Timon of Athens. Ellington also recorded refreshed versions of his evergreens (Historically Speaking), or old and new pieces gathered under a unifying project (The Symphonic Ellington, Afro-Bossa). He increasingly appeared as a soloist, as in Piano in the Foreground, sporting a tortured “Summertime.” Summits were arranged with many great jazzmen, from Armstrong to Coltrane, and a trio recording with Charles Mingus and Max Roach highlighted Ellington’s timeless modernity.

7. Last years, 1964–74.

After touring the United States and Europe for years, a trip to the Near East (1963) opened a new chapter in Ellington’s career. He visited Japan, West Africa, the Caribbean, Australia, Latin America, and the USSR, thus acquiring a taste for cultural diversity. Being the recipient of innumerable awards, his trips were diplomatic affairs, involving ceremonies, yet he observed places, people, and customs; music became his travel journal. Inspiration from black history and identity lost its central role; its ethical content (equality, justice) expanded into a global vision of the humankind/God relationship. The band long kept a high performance level, but his old stars gradually retired or died, except Gonsalves and Carney; finally, discipline in the band deteriorated.

Ellington performed with his orchestra until March 1974. Hospitalized for lung cancer, he composed until his final days. The band remained active under Mercer Ellington, then under grandson Paul Ellington. His papers reside at the Smithsonian Institution. The total amount of existing sheet music and recordings is still unknown.

8. Language.

During his life, Ellington was regarded as the creator of picturesque jungle sketches, a great songwriter, a successful bandleader, an over-ambitious jazzman, a demodé, and finally an ageless classic. However, he was consistently depicted as a natural talent who had virtually no command of large forms and fared better as a songster/miniaturist. Such views are now being challenged. Many (e.g., Wynton Marsalis) have stressed his achievements in large works; scholars are questioning the self-made-man myth. Ellington had at least six music teachers, not counting friends and mentors. His comments on them, albeit pithy and occasionally anecdotal, are clear. His composition technique was incomplete yet effective, and certainly above his critics’ grasp. Judging from his works, he knew how to: build a whole piece from a tiny motif, often two tones (“Mood Indigo,” Reminiscing in Tempo, “Ko-Ko,” The Tattooed Bride, Harlem, Suite Thursday, “Fleurette Africaine”) or a triad (“Saturday Night Function,” “Echoes of the Jungle,” “Awful Sad,” Black, Brown and Beige, Liberian Suite); retrograde it to generate a palindrome (his obsession: “Hop Head,” “Azure,” Monologue, “Blind Bug,” “Fall,” Fragmented Suite; in overall form: “Sepia Panorama,” “Frustration,” “Later,” La Scala, “Didjeridoo”); use augmentation/diminution (“Blue Bubbles,” “Jubilee Stomp”); connect episodes through a repeated gesture (Creole Rhapsody); adopt classical molds like ternary form (“Echoes of Harlem,” “The Clothed Woman”) or rondo (“Blue Feeling”); create a sonata-form-like dialectic and synthesis between themes (“The Mystery Song,” “On a Turquoise Cloud”); and write through-composed pieces (A Tonal Group, Harlem, “The Golden Broom”).

In the realm of orchestration, whereas Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra had basically two brass sounds (open/muted) and two reed sounds (clarinets/saxes), Ellington used a whole array of brass mutes and combinations, mixed and squeezed reeds in their extreme registers, tried weird blends (“The Mystery Song,” treble-range baritone saxophone with piano chords) or required special effects (“Echoes of the Jungle,” tenor banjo tremolo-glissando). His parts were usually tailored to his performers’ abilities. He never acquired a thorough writing technique for strings; when commissioned a symphonic score, he often employed Luther Henderson. Otherwise, he wrote for strings mostly in unison and got magnificent—albeit heterodox—results, giving effective passages to piccolo, bassoon, tympani, harp, or oboe.

By 1928 Ellington’s music began leaning toward chromaticism. Harmony was enriched; four- and five-note chords became the rule. Polychords are found everywhere from “Eerie Moan” to the Sacred Concerts, and the whole-tone scale often bears a menacing quality (“Strange Feeling,” “Dance No.2”). Melodic chromaticism often borders saturation inside an octave (“The Mooche,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Minnehaha,” “Reflections in D”) or reaches it (“Daybreak Express,” “Dancers in Love”). Atonal or atonal-sounding passages are also present (Perfume Suite, “Later,” Sacred Concerts). Ellington’s insistent knocking at the 12-tone door also seems related to his fondness for the minor 2nd and related intervals (major 7th, minor 9th), which rule a significant part of his opus. By contrast, his chord progressions are often simple. Many draw from obvious sources: the blues, in endless variants, “Tiger Rag” (“High Life,” “Daybreak Express”), or pop standards (the two themes of “Clarinet Lament” from verse and refrain of “Basin Street Blues”). Parallel chromatic sequences abound; sudden jumps to distant keys are rare (“It’s Glory,” “Harlem Air Shaft,” “Concerto For Cootie”). In one case (“Showboat Shuffle”) part of the band modulates a bit later, to a weird passing polytonal effect. By the mid-sixties, Ellington also embraced modal jazz, using extensive pedal points (“Chinoiserie,” “Afrique”).

In the realm of form, Ellington adopted the tri-thematic rag form only in a few early pieces (“Parlor Social Stomp,” “Hop Head,” “Swampy River”). He preferred other common molds: multi-thematic blues, with several distinct harmonizations of the basic progression (“Saddest Tale,” “Stalking Monster,” La Scala, “Moonbow”), and verse-and-refrain song. Instrumental jazz from the 1920s often had one verse placed after a chorus or two—for example, CVCCC. As Ellington began using two contrasting elements, he turned the verse into a veritable second theme, thus creating an asymmetric polarity—for example, ABAAA (“Black Beauty,” “The Mystery Song,” “Lightnin’,” “Dance No. 3”). Bi-thematic forms are also common as alternating, for example, AABABBAB (“East St.Louis Toodle-o,” “Jubilee Stomp,” “Bojangles,” Night Creature) and binary—for example, AAABBBB (“Afro-Bossa”). Also, he often stretched and shrank sections along the way (“East St.Louis Toodle-o,” Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, “Battle of Swing,” “Stalking Monster”), a practice that gained ground in jazz only in the 1950s. On occasion he wrote music in superimposed layers (“The Sergeant Was Shy,” “Dance No.1,” “Later”); this rose to sole formal principle in a few late pieces bordering on modalism and minimalism (“The Falls,” “The Whirlpool,” “Afrique”). Compositions focused on tone color form an entire subgenre, stemming from “Mood Indigo,” with its celebrated muted brass-low clarinet blend; others are “Solitude,” “Blue Light,” “Dusk.” They might be seen as the equivalent of a painter’s series of studies of the same subject under different lights.

Ellington is also known for his melodies, yet he produced few song hits. Some (“Sophisticated Lady,” “In a Sentimental Mood”) originated as instrumental pieces, as their winding contours reveal. Others are based on catchy riffs (“It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Satin Doll”). Despite the illusory abandon to a spontaneously fertile melodic inspiration, his lines are tightly motivic.

Much of Ellington’s output is danceable, written for professional dancers, suggests dance steps, or evokes dance scenes. He hardly tried anything unusual in the realm of rhythm, which he saw as ground for social interaction, rather than originality.

As a pianist, Ellington debuted as a fast, energetic follower of the stride school. As his harmonic world expanded, he developed a more sedate, chordal, lyrical approach; however, he allowed himself rare solo spots. In the 1940s he abandoned the stride bass to become a fully modern improviser. His quest for an essential mode of expression led him to finally focus on piercing, percussive monosyllables.

9. Symbology.

Ellington employed such resources to create symbolic, sometimes literally descriptive music. He thought theatrically and synaesthetically, often viewing a composition as a tale or a theatrical scene, with characters, environments, and events, and gradually put together his own lexicon of musical images. Onomatopoeias include animals (The Queen’s Suite), trains (“Lightnin’,” “Daybreak Express,” “Happy-Go-Lucky Local,” “Track 360,” In the Beginning God), water (“Swampy River,” The River), clock (“Later”), spoken word (Reminiscing in Tempo, Harlem, Such Sweet Thunder), and even whiplashes (Liberian Suite). Visual correspondences range from isolated subjects (“Lightning Bugs and Frogs”) to detailed scripts (Black, Brown and Beige, Liberian Suite). Dance steps are evoked by a repeated small interval, or by the rhythm section suggesting foot patting (“Black Beauty,” “Bojangles,” “Pitter Panther Patter,” “Dancers in Love”). Citations often point to the subject or character; people are portrayed by hinting at a song associated with them (“I’m a Little Blackbird” for Florence Mills, “Nobody” for Bert Williams). A composition may painstakingly parallel a detailed story; some he himself furnished (Black, Brown and Beige, The Tattooed Bride), some must be reconstructed by deftly scattered evidence (“Black and Tan Fantasy,” Deep South Suite, Liberian Suite).

In 1931 Ellington wrote: “What we could not say openly we expressed in music, and what we know as ‘jazz’ is something more than just dance music.” He later grew explicit—with some exceptions, mostly related to racism and Freemasonry. He repeatedly returned to his favorite subjects: Harlem, Negro history and identity, human diversity, sex, faith, landscapes, dance. These evolved over time from physical depiction to metaphor, to finally find a place in his sacred music. Thus, the train is raised to a symbol of the Christian message (In the Beginning God); the picture of humankind as a swarming ants’ nest sketched in “Harlem Speaks” expands into a vision of the Judgment Day—“The Biggest and Busiest Intersection.” Such a thick net of symbols and meanings in Ellington’s immense opus still largely awaits decipherment.


(* Collaborative works with Billy Strayhorn. For the nature and extent of such collaboration, see van de Leur, 2002.)



Boola (Ellington, inc.), 1939

Shout up a Morning, musical drama (P. Farrow, unproduced), 1970

Queenie Pie, street opera (Ellington, inc., compl. M. Ellington, M. Peress), Philadelphia, 1986

Musical comedies

Harlem is Heaven (unproduced), 1937

H.M.S. Times Square (unproduced), 1943–5

Beggar’s Holiday,* New York, 1946

Moon of Mahnomen (unproduced), 1947

Cock o’ the World* (unproduced), 1931–51

Be My Guest* (unproduced), 1953–4

Man with Four Sides (unproduced), 1955 [stage reading, New York, 1997]

Satin Doll (unproduced), 1948–58

Free as a Bird (unproduced), 1943–63

Pousse Café, New York, 1966

Saturday Laughter,* Atlanta, 1977


Chocolate Kiddies (six numbers), Berlin, 1925

Backbiters, New York, 1925

Blackberries of 1930 (four numbers), New York, 1930

Show Girl (G. Gershwin, one number), New York, 1930

Rhythmania (H. Arlen, one number), New York, 1931

The Cotton Club Parade of 1938, New York, 1938

Jubilee: A Cavalcade of Negro Theater (one number, unproduced), 1940

Jump for Joy,* Los Angeles, 1941 (revival, Miami Beach, 1959)

My People, Chicago, 1963


Night Creature, jazz orch, sym. orch, 1955, New York, 1974

The Road of the Phoebe Snow,* jazz orch, New York, 1958

The River, jazz orch/sym. orch, New York, 1970

Psychedelic Suite, jazz orch, San Francisco 1972

Three Black Kings (inc., completed M. Ellington), sym. orch, New York, 1976

Incidental music

Time Runs (O. Welles),* Paris, 1950

Mardi Gras (N. Rosten), Philadelphia, 1954

Turcaret (A.R. Lesage), Paris, 1960

Timon of Athens (W. Shakespeare), Stratford, Ontario, 1963

Murder at the Cathedral (T.S. Eliot), Milton, WI, 1966

The Jaywalker (B. Waring), Coventry, UK, 1967

pieces with narrator

Saddest Tale, jazz orch, 1934

Monologue (Pretty and the Wolf), 4 cl/sax, db, drum, 1951

A Drum Is a Woman,* 4 vv, hp, jazz orch, 1956

Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald,* jazz orch, 1957

Poetic Commentaries (in “Orchestral Works” LP), sym. orch, 1970


Black and Tan (D. Murphy), 1929

Symphony in Black (F. Waller), 1935

It’s All True (O. Welles, inc.), 1941

Cabin in the Sky (A. Lewis), 1943 (one song)

Life insurance company TV commercial, c1956

Anatomy of a Murder (O. Preminger),* 1959

Paris Blues (M. Ritt), 1960

Asphalt Jungle (TV serial), 1960

Astrofreight Cargo by Air (S. Stieber) [Suite for Swinging], 1964

Assault on a Queen (J. Donohue), 1966

Degas’ Racing World (inc.) [The Degas Suite], 1968

Change of Mind (R. Stevens), 1968

Moon Lady, 1973, inc.

sacred music

In the Beginning God,* Bar/nar, choir, jazz orch, 1965

Second Sacred Concert, 2 nar, S, Bar, choir, jazz orch, 1968

Third Sacred Concert, nar, S, Bar, choir, jazz orch, 1973

extended compositions

(for jazz orch, unless otherwise noted)


Creole Rhapsody, 1931

Reminiscing in Tempo, 1935

Blue Belles of Harlem, pf, jazz orch, 1938

Blutopia,* 1944

Celebration, sym. orch, 1972

Tone poems

New World a-Comin’, (pf, sym. orch)/(pf, jazz orch)pf, 1943

Manhattan Murals,* 1948

The Tattooed Bride, 1948

A Tone Parallel to Harlem, jazz orch, opt. sym. orch, 1951


The Beautiful Indians, 1947

The Symphomaniac,* 1948

The Controversial Suite, 1951

The Little Purple Flower, 1967


Black, Brown and Beige,* 1943

The Perfume Suite,* 1944

The Magazine Suite,* 1945

The Deep South Suite,* 1946

A Tonal Group, 1946

Liberian Suite, 1947

Newport Jazz Festival Suite,* 1956

Toot Suite,* 1957

The Queen’s Suite,* 1958

Tune Poem, 1958

Duael Fuel, 1959

Idiom ’59, 1959

Asphalt Jungle Suite, 1960

Nutcracker Suite [after Tchaikovsky],* 1960

Peer Gynt Suite [after Grieg],* 1960

Suite Thursday,* 1960

The Girls Suite,* 1961

Ad Lib on Nippon, 1964

A [Blue] Mural from Two Perspectives,* 4 sax, pf, cb, dr, 1964

The Golden Broom and the Green Apple, sym. orch, 1965

The Virgin Islands Suite,* 1965

The Far East Suite,* 1966

Latin-American Suite, 1970

New Orleans Suite, 1970

The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, 1971

The Goutelas Suite, 1971

The Togo Brava Suite, 1971

The UWIS Suite, 1972

Fragmented Suite for Piano and Bass, pf, db, 1972

Large-form blues compositions

Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, 1937

Frankie and Johnnie (on a folk tune), 1943

Non-Violent Integration, jazz orch, sym. orch, 1949

Tutti for Cootie, 1962

La Scala, She Too Pretty to Be Blue, jazz orch, sym. orch, 1963

Afro-Bossa, 1963


La plus belle Africaine, 1965


(selective list)

Liberian Suite, 1947

Ellington Plays Ellington (Piano Reflections), 1953

Historically Speaking,* 1956

Such Sweet Thunder,* 1956

At Newport,* 1956

A Drum Is a Woman,* 1956

Black, Brown and Beige,* with Mahalia Jackson, 1958

The Cosmic Scene, 1958

Ellington Jazz Party,* with perc., 1959

Anatomy of a Murder,* 1959

Blues in Orbit, 1959

Piano in the Foreground, 1957–61

First Time!, with C. Basie, 1961

Together for the First Time/The Great Reunion, with L. Armstrong, 1961

Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins, 1962

Money Jungle, with C. Mingus and M. Roach, 1962

Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, 1962

Afro-Bossa,* 1963

The Symphonic Ellington, 1963

My People,* 1963

Ella at Duke’s Place, with E. Fitzgerald,* 1965

Concert of Sacred Music,* 1966

Far East Suite,* 1966

… and His Mother Called Him Bill,* 1967

Second Sacred Concert, 1968

New Orleans Suite, 1970

Orchestral Works, 1970

The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, 1971

This One’s for Blanton!, 1972

Third Sacred Concert, 1973

short pieces

(selective list)

( – collab. others)

The Soda Fountain Rag, c1914

Birmingham Breakdown, 1926

East St.Louis Toodle-o, 1926

Immigration Blues, 1926

Black and Tan Fantasy, 1927

Creole Love Call, 1927

Awful Sad, 1928

Black Beauty, 1928

Hot and Bothered, 1928

Misty Mornin’, 1928

The Mooch, 1928

Swampy River, 1928

Cotton Club Stomp, 1929

Saturday Night Function, 1929

Old Man Blues, 1930

Mood Indigo, 1930

Echoes of the Jungle, 1931

The Mystery Song, 1931

Ring Dem Bells, 1931

Rockin’ in Rhythm, 1931

It Don’t Mean a Thing, 1932

Harlem Speaks, 1932

Lightnin’, 1932

Sophisticated Lady, 1932

Daybreak Express, 1933

Drop Me off at Harlem, 1933

Eerie Moan, 1933

Merry-Go-Round, 1933

Blue Feeling, 1934

Delta Serenade, 1934

Saddest Tale, 1934

Solitude, 1934

In a Sentimental Mood, 1935

Showboat Shuffle, 1935

Caravan, 1936

Clarinet Lament, 1936

Echoes of Harlem, 1936

Azure, 1937

Battle of Swing, 1938

Blue Light, 1938

Boy Meets Horn, 1938

A Gypsy Without a Song, 1938

I Let a Song Go out of My Heart, 1938

Prelude to a Kiss, 1938

Portrait of the Lion, 1939

Serenade to Sweden, 1939

The Sergeant Was Shy, 1939

Subtle Lament, 1939

Across the Track Blues, 1940

All Too Soon, 1940

Bojangles, 1940

Concerto for Cootie, 1940

Conga Brava, 1940

Cotton Tail, 1940

Dusk, 1940

The Flaming Sword, 1940

Harlem Air Shaft, 1940

In a Mellow Tone, 1940

Jack the Bear, 1940

Ko-Ko, 1940

Never No Lament, 1940

Pitter Panther Patter, p, b, 1940

A Portrait of Bert Williams, 1940

Sepia Panorama,* 1940

Warm Valley, 1940

Blue Serge, 1941

I Got It Bad, 1941

American Lullaby/Chant for FDR, 1942

C-Jam Blues,* 1942

Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, 1942

Just a-Sittin’ and a-Rockin’, 1942

Main Stem, 1942

Moon Mist, 1942

What Am I Here For?, 1942

Come Sunday, 1943

Don’t You Know I Care, 1944

Frustration, 1944

I’m Beginning to See the Light, 1944

Air-Conditioned Jungle,* 1945

Transblucency, 1945

Happy-Go-Lucky Local, 1946

Tonk,* 1946

The Clothed Woman, 1947

Lady of the Lavender Mist, 1947

On a Turquoise Cloud, 1947

Blues for Blanton, 1950

Melancholia, 1953

Reflections in D, 1953

Satin Doll, 1953

Le sucrier velours, 1956

Track 360, 1958

Springtime in Africa, 1961

Money Jungle, 1962

Fleurette africaine, 1962

Silk Lace, 1962

Chromatic Love Affair, 1967

T.G.T.T., 1967

Traffic Jam, 1967

Principal publishers

Belwin-Mills, Robbins, Tempo, Schirmer



  • W.E. Timner: Ellingtonia: the Recorded Music of Duke Ellington and His Sidemen. A Collector’s Manual (Montréal, 1976, 5/2007)
  • A. Wolfe: Duke Ellington: Periodical Articles [1949–1977] (Chicago, 1979)
  • E. Wiedemann: “Duke Ellington: the Composer,” Annual Review of Jazz Studies, 5 (1991), 1991
  • K. Stratemann: Duke Ellington: Day by Day and Film by Film (Copenhagen, 1992)
  • J. Valburn: Duke Ellington on Compact Disc. An Index and Text of the Recordered Work of Duke Ellington on Compact Disc: An In-Depth Study (Hicksville, NY, 1993)
  • L. Massagli and G. Volonté: The New DESOR: Duke Ellington’s Story on Records, 2 vols (Milan, 1999; upd on DEMS Bulletin)
own writings
  • D. Ellington: “Music Is ‘Tops’ to You and Me … and Swing Is a Part of It,” Tops (1938), p. 14; rept as “Duke Ellington Explains Swing” in R. Walser, ed. Keeping Time. Readings in Jazz History (New York 1999)

    See also Tucker 1993.

  • D. Ellington, L. Feather and B. Strayhorn: Duke Ellington Piano Method for Blues (New York, 1943)
  • D. Ellington: “Duke Ellington: by … Duke Ellington,” The Needle (1944), no. 7, p. 10
  • D. Ellington: “Farewell to Jazz Fakers,” in “Interpretations in Jazz. A Conference with Duke Ellington,” The Etude (1947), 3; partly reprinted in V. Byrd et al., Jump for Joy
  • D. Ellington: “Foreword,” in L. Feather The Encyclopedia of Jazz (New York, 1955)
  • D. Ellington: “Foreword,” in: S. Traill, G. Lascelles, eds. Just Jazz 3 (London, 1959)
  • D. Ellington: “A Royal View of Jazz,” Jazz. A Quarterly of American Music, 1 (1959), 2, p. 83
  • H. Kane: How to Write a Song, As Told to Henry Kane by Duke Ellington [and others] (New York, 1962)
  • D. Ellington: “Thoughts on Composing,” Jazz Journal, 16 (1963), no. 1, p. 3
  • D. Ellington: “Foreword,” in Willie “The Lion” Smith and George Hoefer Music on My Mind. The Memoirs of an American Pianist (New York, 1964)
  • D. Ellington: “Prefazione,” Il Jazz (Milan, 1968–70; 8-volume encyclopaedia)
  • D. Ellington: “La signification des mes concerts de musique sacrée,” Jazz Magazine (1968), no. 152, p. 11
  • D. Ellington: Music Is My Mistress (Garden City, NY, 1973/R 1985; index by H.F. Huon: Pewaukee, WI, rev. 2/1982)
  • R.D. Darrell: Black Beauty (Philadelphia, 1932)
  • I. Mills: Irving Mills Presents Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra (New York, c1933)
  • J. de Trazegnies: Duke Ellington. Harlem Aristocrat of Jazz (Brussels, 1946)
  • D. Preston: Mood Indigo (Egham, England, 1946)
  • B. Ulanov: Duke Ellington (New York, 1946/R 1975)
  • Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra (New York, 1948)
  • N. Arnaud et al.: Duke Ellington: Étude serrée par Noël Arnaud; suivie des commentaires techniques de Jacques Bureau; et d’une tentative d’essai en vue d’un premier manifeste d’une école de Créteil suggéré par Michel Philippot; avec le portrait de Duke Ellington et celui de Kay Davis vus de près par Max Bucaille (Paris, 1950)
  • P. Gammond, ed.: Duke Ellington: His Life and Music (London, 1958, 2/1959/R 1977)
  • G.E. Lambert: Duke Ellington (London, 1959/R 1978)
  • R. Greene: Duke Ellington. Eine Bildchronik (Zurich, 1961)
  • S. Dance: The World of Duke Ellington (New York, 1970)
  • D. Jewell: Duke: A Portrait of Duke Ellington (New York, 1977)
  • M. Ellington and S. Dance: Duke Ellington in Person: An Intimate Memoir (Boston, 1978)
  • Hans Ruland: Duke Ellington. Sein Leben, seine Musik, seine Schallplatten (Gauting-Buchendorf, Germany, 1983)
  • K. Rattenbury: Duke Ellington. Jazz Composer (New Haven, 1990)
  • M. Tucker: Ellington: The Early Years (Urbana/Champaigne, IL, 1991)
  • M.J. Cooper: Duke Ellington: The Pianist (Ann Arbor, 1993)
  • M. Tucker: The Duke Ellington Reader (New York, 1993)
  • A. Berini and G. Volonté: Duke Ellington. Un genio, un mito (Florence, 1994)
  • K. Dietrich: Duke’s ‘Bones. Ellington’s Great Trombonists (Rottenburg am Neckar, Germany, 1995)
  • J.E. Hasse: Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington (New York, 1995)
  • D.J. Travis: The Duke Ellington Primer (Chicago, 1996)
  • Estate of M. Ellington: Duke Ellington (n.p., 1997)
  • R. Dini (ed.), M. Piras, R. Scivales, and S. Zenni: Il Duca al Conservatorio. Omaggio a Duke Ellington nel centenario della nascita (Ancona, Italy, 1999)
  • E. Lambert: Duke Ellington. A Listener’s Guide (Lanham, MD, 1999)
  • J.T. Steed: Duke Ellington. A Spiritual Biography (New York, 1999)
  • K. Vail: Duke’s Diary. Part 1: The Life of Duke Ellington 1927–1950 (Cambridge, 1999); Part 2: The Life of Duke Ellington 1950–1974 (Lanham, MD, 2002)
  • J. Franceschina: Duke Ellington’s Music for the Theatre (Jefferson, NC, 2000)
  • W. Knauer, ed.: Duke Ellington und die Folgen (Hofheim am Taunus, Germany, 2000)
  • Public Broadcasting Service: Duke Ellington’s Washington (Chevy Chase, MD, 2000)
  • P. Lavezzoli: The King of All, Sir Duke: Ellington and the Artistic Revolution (New York, 2001)
  • J.F. Morton: Backstory in Blue: Ellington at Newport ‘56 (New Brunswick, NJ, 2008)
  • E. Ferber: Duke Ellington’s New York (Berkeley, CA, 2009)
  • H. Cohen: Duke Ellington’s America (Chicago, 2010)
  • E. Green, ed.: The Cambridge Companion to Duke Ellington (Cambridge, 2012)
books with relevant sections
  • D.K. Antrim and P. Whiteman: Paul Whiteman, Jimmy Dorsey, Rudy Vallee, Freddie Rich, Glen Gray, Frank Skinner, Enric Madriguera, Jimmy Dale, Merle Johnston, Guy Lombardo, Uriel Davis and Duke Ellington Give Their Secrets of Dance and Success (New York, 1936)
  • A. Hodeir: Hommes et problèmes du jazz (Paris, 1954) tr. Jazz: its Evolution and Essence (New York, 1956/R 1975)
  • L. Cerri: Antologia del jazz (Pisa, Italy, 1955)
  • N. Hentoff and N. Shapiro: Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz As Told by the Men Who Made It (New York, 1955/R 1966)
  • L. Hughes: Famous Negro Music Makers (New York, 1955/R 1963)
  • G.T. Simon: The Big Bands (New York, 1967; rev. 2/1971/R 1981)
  • G. Schuller: Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development (New York, 1968)
  • R. Stewart: Jazz Masters of the Thirties (New York, 1972/R 1980)
  • W. Balliett: Duke Ellington Remembered (Newport Beach, CA, 1981)
  • B. Vian: Écrits sur le jazz. Tome 1 (Paris, 1981); Autres écrits sur le jazz. Tome 2 (Paris, 1982)
  • G. Schuller: The Swing Era: The Development Of Jazz, 1930–1945 (New York, 1989)
  • J. McLaren: Form and Feeling: The Critical Reception of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington and Langston Hughes, 1920–1966 (New York, 1990)
  • R.P. Dodge: Hot Jazz and Jazz Dance. Collected Writings, 1929–1964 (New York, 1995)
  • G. Lock: Blutopia. Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton (Durham, NC, 1999)
  • W. Enstice and P. Rubin: Jazz Spoken Here: Conversations with Twenty-Two Musicians [Mercer Ellington included] (New York, 1994, 2/2000)
  • P.A. Anderson: Deep River. Music and Memory in Harlem Renaissance Thought (Durham, NC, 2001)
  • A. Appel: Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce (New York, 2002)
  • S. Lasker: A Cotton Club Miscellany (n.p., 2002)
  • P. von Eschen: Satchmo Blows up the World. Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Cambridge, MA, 2004)
  • V. Perlis and L. van Cleve: Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington: An Oral History of American Music (New Haven, 2005)
  • C.D. Wintz: Harlem Speaks: A Living History of the Harlem Renaissance (Naperville, IL, 2007)
  • J. Howland: Ellington Uptown. Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and the Birth of Concert Jazz (Ann Arbor, MI, 2009)
  • C. Laurence and H. Rostaing: “En parlant d’arrangements …,” Jazz Hot, 11 (1945), no. 1, p. 19; 2, p. 18; 3, p. 29
  • H. Hess: “The Diligent Duke of Ellington,” Esquire (1945–6), reprint: “Jazz Studies,” 2 (1968), 1, p. 3; 2, p. 23
  • R. Fol: “Duke Ellington, pianiste,” Jazz Hot, 16 (1950), n. 43, p. 17
  • V. Bellerby: “Reflections on Duke Ellington,” Jazz Monthly, 1 (1955), no. 10, p. 28; 11, p. 28; 12, p. 9; 2 (1956), no. 2, p. 28.
  • V. Bellerby: “Duke Ellington and the Harlem Suite,” Jazz Monthly, 2 (1956), no. 5, p. 8
  • B. James: “The Impressionism of Duke Ellington,” Jazz Monthly, 3 (1957), n. 8, p. 5
  • D. Ioakimidis: “Les drummers d’Ellington,” Jazz Hot, 24 (1958), no. 130, p. 14
  • R. Crowley: “Black, Brown and Beige After Sixteen Years,” Jazz (1959), no. 2, 98
  • M. Harrison: “The Anatomy of a Murder Music,” Jazz Review, 2 (1959), no. 10, 35
  • D. Ioakimidis: “Un pianiste nommé Ellington,” Jazz Hot (1961) no. 163, p. 12; 164, p. 18; 165, p. 22; 166, p. 20
  • B. Priestley: “The Far East Suite,” Jazz Monthly, 15 (1969), no. 1, 17
  • A.J. Bishop: “The Protean Imagination of Duke Ellington: The Early Years,” Jazz Journal, 24 (1971), no. 10, 2
  • B. Priestley and A. Cohen: “Black, Brown and Beige,” Composer (1974), no. 51, p. 33; no. 52, p.29; (1974–5), no. 53, p. 29
  • M. Piras: “‘Mood Indigo’ o il colore del crepuscolo,” Musica Jazz, 41 (1985), no. 5, p. 60
  • W. Knauer: “Anmerkungen zu Improvisation und Komposition in Duke Ellingtons Suite Black, Brown & Beige,” Beiträge zur Popularmusikforschung (1989), 7/8, p. 16
  • T.R. Hudson: “Duke Ellington’s Literary Sources,” American Music, 9 (1991), no. 1, p. 20
  • Black Music Research Journal, 13/2 (1993) [special issue on Black, Brown and Beige with essays by S. DeVeaux, K. Dietrich, S. Hoefsmit, A. Homzy, M. Peress, and M. Tucker]
  • R. Domek: “The Duke as Impressionist. Another Look,” Jazz Research Papers (1994), 14, p. 55
  • M. Piras et al.: “Ventennale Ellington,” Musica Jazz, 50 (1994), no. 5, p. 23
  • K. Dietrich: “The Ellington Trombone Plunger Tradition. Yesterday and Today,” Jazz Research Papers (1995), 15, p. 38
  • A. Jaffe: “An Overview of Duke Ellington Composition Techniques,” Jazz Research Papers (1996), 16, p. 71
  • M.T. Roeder: “Ellington Exposed. ‘Back to Back’ and ‘Side by Side’,” Annual Review of Jazz Studies (1997–8), no. 9, p. 339
  • A. Berini, C. Angeleri and M. Franco, F. D’Andrea, G. Comeglio, M. Levine, M. Piras, M. Visconti Prasca: “Duke Ellington 1899–1999,” Musica Oggi (1999), no. 19 (special issue)
  • R. Domek: “Compositional Characteristics of Later Ellington Works,” Jazz Research Proceedings Yearbook (1999), no. 19, p. 127
  • M. Tucker: “Post-Canonical Ellington,” ISAM Newsletter, 28 (1999), no. 2, p. 4
  • L. Bragalini: “Mexicanticipation e Latin American Suite. Metamorfosi nella fucina del Duca,” Musica Jazz, 56 (2000), no. 3, p. 56
  • V. Cotro: “Duke Ellington vers la grande forme. Creole Rhapsody (1931),” Les Cahiers du Jazz, 1 (2001), no. 1, p. 87
  • R. Dailey: “Ellington as a Composer for the Piano,” Jazz Research Proceedings Yearbook (2001), no. 31, p. 151
  • R. Domek: “Formula Tuttis and Sectional Writing in Later Ellington Works,” Jazz Research Proceedings Yearbook (2001), no. 31, p. 120
  • S. Zenni: “The Aesthetics of Duke Ellington’s Suites: The Case of Togo Brava,” Black Music Research Journal, 21 (2001), no. 1, p. 1
  • J.L. Howland: “The Whitemanesque Roots of Early Ellingtonian ‘Extended Jazz Composition’,” Research Proceedings Yearbook (2003), p. 16
  • H. Martin: “From Fountain to Furious. Ellington’s Development as Stride Pianist,” Musica Oggi (2003–4), n. 23, p. 55
  • H. Cohen: “Duke Ellington and Black, Brown and Beige: The Composer as Historian at Carnegie Hall,” American Quarterly, 56 (2004), no. 4, p. 1003
  • E. Green: “‘It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Grundgestalt!’. Ellington from a Motivic Perspective,” Jazz Perspectives, 2 (2008), no. 2, p. 215
  • E. Green: “‘Harlem Air Shaft’: A True Programmatic Composition?,” Journal of Jazz Studies, 7 (2011), no. 1, p. 28
  • Also, The International DEMS Bulletin. Duke Ellington Music Society (1979–).
record booklets
  • S. Dance and D. Morgenstern: “Duke Ellington,” Giants of Jazz (Alexandria, VA, 1978)
  • A. Homzy: Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra: Fargo, North Dakota—November 7, 1940 (New York, 1990)
  • S. Dance: The Complete Capitol Recordings of Duke Ellington (Stamford, CT, 1995)
  • D. Morgenstern: Duke Ellington. The Centennial Edition (New York, 1999)
  • M. Tucker: Duke Ellington: The Reprise Studio Recordings (Stamford, CT, 1999)
  • H.P. Bergmeyer and R. Lotz: Live from the Cotton Club (Hambergen, Germany, 2003)
  • D. Morgenstern: The Duke Box (Copenhagen, 2006)

Multimedia links

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”Blem.” Duke Ellington, composer. Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: Up in Duke's Workshop (Original Jazz Classics: 1991). Audio.

Washington (DC), Library of Congress