Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: The Duke

John Wayne as Genghis Kahn (1956); not one of his finest cinematic moments
John Wayne as Genghis Kahn (1956); not one of his finest cinematic moments

We mark the birth of The Duke on April 29, 1899 – 125 years ago today – in Washington D.C. 

By “The Duke,” we are not here referring to the actor John Wayne (who was born on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa), but rather, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, one of the greatest songwriters and composers ever to be born in the United States.  

Aside from their shared nickname, it would appear that the only thing Duke Ellington had in common with John Wayne was that they both suffered from lung cancer.  In Ellington’s case, cancer killed him at the age of 75 on May 24, 1974, at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City (and not at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, as is inexplicably claimed on certain web sites!).

Born in Washington D.C., he grew up at 2129 Ida Place (now Ward Place) NW, in the district’s West End neighborhood. His father, James Edward Ellington, worked as a blueprint maker for the Navy Department and on occasion as a butler, sometimes at the White House.  His mother, Daisy (born Kennedy) was the daughter of formerly enslaved people.  Theirs was a musical household; both of Ellington’s parents played piano. (We are told that James Edward Ellington preferred to play arrangements of operatic arias, while Daisy preferred the semi-classical parlor songs that were popular with the middle and upper middle classes at the time.)

Ellington as a child
Ellington as a child

And let us make no mistake; the Ellingtons were indeed of the upper middle class: sophisticated, educated, upwardly mobile, proud of their racial heritage and unwilling to allow their children to be limited by the Jim Crow laws of the time.  According to Studs Terkel, writing in his book Giants of Jazz (The New Press, 2nd edition, 2002):

“Daisy [Ellington] surrounded her son with dignified women to reinforce his manners and teach him elegance. His childhood friends noticed that his casual, offhand manner and dapper dress gave him the bearing of a young nobleman.”

It was that noble bearing that prompted Ellington’s high school friend Edgar McEntee to come up with the nickname that Ellington wore so very well for so very long.  According to Ellington himself: 

“I think he [Edgar McEntee] felt that in order for me to be eligible for his constant companionship, I should have a title. So he called me Duke.”)

For the young Ellington, piano lessons were a must; it was, for children of his generation (and mine as well!) an inevitable childhood rite-of-passage.  Having said that, like so many red-blooded American kids, Ellington preferred baseball, at which he excelled.  In his autobiography he recalled that:

“President [Theodore] Roosevelt would come on his horse sometimes, and stop and watch us play.”

(For our information: Ellington’s love of the game ran deep, and his first paying job was selling peanuts at Washington Senators games.)

(Because we all should know: the Senators, also-known-as the “Nationals,” played in D.C. from 1901 to 1960.  It was in 1960 that the team broke the collective hearts of its District fans and moved to Minnesota, there to become the “Minnesota Twins”: “twins” as in the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.)

Ellington’s first piano teacher was the spectacularly named Marietta Clinkscales (OMG; who could make such a name up?). As a teenager, he took up ragtime piano and studied harmony, though as a teen his growing love of music shared equal time with a real talent for painting and design. …

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