Edward Kennedy Ellington was born on April 29th, 1899. Ellington was raised by two musical parents in a middle-class neighborhood of Washington, D.C. At the age of seven, he began studying piano and earned the nickname "Duke" for his gentlemanly ways. Inspired by his job as a soda jerk, he wrote his first composition, "Soda Fountain Rag," at the age of 15. Despite being awarded an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, Ellington followed his passion for ragtime and began to play professionally at age 17.
In the 1920s, Ellington performed in Broadway nightclubs as the bandleader of a sextet. Ellington sought out musicians with unique playing styles, such as Bubber Miley, who used a plunger to make the "wa-wa" sound, and Joe Nanton, who gave the world his trombone "growl." At various times, his ensemble included the trumpeter Cootie Williams, cornetist Rex Stewart and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. Ellington made hundreds of recordings with his bands, appeared in films and on radio, and toured Europe on two occasions in the 1930s.
Ellington's fame grew in the 1940s when he composed several masterworks, including "Concerto for Cootie," "Cotton Tail" and "Ko-Ko." Some of his most popular songs included "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing," "Sophisticated Lady," "Prelude to a Kiss," "Solitude" and "Satin Doll." A number of his hits were sung by Ivie Anderson, a favorite female vocalist of Ellington's band.
Later years and Death
At the age of 19, Ellington married Edna Thompson, who had been his girlfriend since high school. Soon after their marriage, she gave birth to their only child, Mercer Kennedy Ellington. On May 24, 1974, at the age of 75, Ellington died of lung cancer and pneumonia. His last words were, "Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered." More than 12,000 people attended his funeral. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City.