In This Article Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works and Histories
  • Biographies
  • Guides to Repertory and Itineraries
  • Writings, Interviews, and Criticism
  • Tributes and Journal Special Issues
  • Videography
  • Ellington and Jazz Historiography
  • Archival Resources

Music Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington
John Wriggle, John Howland
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0178


Composer, pianist, and bandleader Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (b. 1899–d. 1974) stands as one of the most influential performers and composers in American music. He is often cited alongside trumpeter Louis Armstrong as one of the two towering figures of jazz, with Ellington representing the arranged ensemble complement to Armstrong’s legacy of virtuosic solo improvisation. Frequently touring across America and the world, Ellington and his orchestra set a standard for ensemble originality, style, and respect that has seldom been equaled. Challenged by racial prejudice and segregation, as well as by constant changes in the cultural status of jazz during his lifetime, the bandleader persevered to become a universal icon of African American achievement. Born and raised in Washington, DC, Ellington moved to New York City in 1923 to build a career composing and performing popular music, eventually rising to national prominence through radio broadcasts from the prestigious Cotton Club (1927–1931). He rode the rising tide of big band jazz during the Swing Era of the 1930s—his 1932 hit “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” was an anthem of the period—and in 1943 presented an original, symphonic-form work for jazz orchestra: Black, Brown and Beige. Premiered at the prestigious New York City venue Carnegie Hall, this programmatic “tone parallel” of the African American experience has since been recognized as a landmark in American music composition and a vital step toward jazz’s acceptance as a respected art form. Although Ellington produced only a handful of popular hits after the Swing Era, 21st-century scholarship has increasingly highlighted the bandleader’s post–Second World War career in addition to his earlier accomplishments: a stunningly vast catalogue of concert, theater, and dance music presented on radio, television, film, and stage.

Reference Works and Histories

Despite the number of Ellington career overviews that have been published, most follow a similar strategy of dividing their subject’s career into two eras—“early” (1920s–early 1940s) and “late” (late 1940s–1974)—usually separated by the 1943 premiere of Black, Brown, and Beige. The vast quantity of Ellington’s output has tended to reinforce a common focus on a small number of canonical works, especially in short reference or textbook publications. Bierman 2015 and Tucker 2000 present brief, accessible biographies of Ellington in the context of the jazz history canon, tracing stylistic developments through sound recordings. Green 2014 presents accessibly written essays on various facets of Ellington’s music and legacy by leading contemporary scholars. Hodeir and Schuller 1994, Larkin 2006, Piras 2013, and Tucker 1999 offer capsule biographies in encyclopedia format, accompanied by useful repertoire and bibliography listings. The extensive bibliography published on the website of the Jazzinsitut Darmstädt is more limited to 20th-century publications but notable for its international scope.

  • Bierman, Benjamin. “Duke Ellington.” In Listening to Jazz. By Benjamin Bierman, 163–175. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

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    An accessibly written and up-to-date jazz history textbook chapter devoted to Ellington. Includes a discussion of key associates (including Bubber Miley and Billy Strayhorn), and listening guide analyses of “Black and Tan Fantasy” (1927, Victor) and “Ko-Ko” (1940).

  • Green, Edward, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Duke Ellington. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

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    Composer and musicologist Edward Green edited this compilation of brief articles covering many aspects of Ellington’s legacy, including biography, music analysis, and reception history. Although many of the articles include brief notated music examples, the book is readily accessible to a general readership. (See Ellington Studies for selected individual article entries.) Includes a biographical timeline and extensive bibliography.

  • Hodeir, André, and Gunther Schuller. “Duke Ellington.” In New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Edited by Barry Kernfeld. London: St. Martin’s, 1994.

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    A jazz history survey of Ellington’s career, written by two historians who were instrumental in establishing the composer as a key figure in American music. Features brief (and inconsistent) score transcriptions, including “Ko-Ko” (1940) and “The Clothed Woman” (1947).

  • Jazzinsitut Darmstädt.

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    The website of the Darmstädt Jazz Institute features extensive international bibliographies of major jazz figures, including Ellington. Organized by year of original publication (1923–1965). In German and English.

  • Larkin, Colin. “Ellington, Duke.” In Encyclopedia of Popular Music. 4th ed. Vol. 3. Edited by Colin Larkin, 259–263. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    A fine overview of Ellington’s biography and career, including a brief bibliography and extensive discography of recommended recordings.

  • Piras, Marcello. “Duke Ellington.” In The Grove Dictionary of American Music. 2d ed. Vol. 3. Edited by Charles Hiroshi Garrett, 121–127. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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    An up-to-date biographical overview and discussion of key works. Includes an extensive bibliography.

  • Tucker, Mark. “Edward Kennedy (‘Duke’) Ellington.” In International Dictionary of Black Composers. Vol. 1. Edited by Samuel A. Floyd Jr., 411–423. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999.

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    The definitive reference entry on Ellington as composer, featuring discussion of Ellington compositions “Mood Indigo” (1930), “Jack the Bear” (1940), Harlem (1950), and The Far East Suite (1966). Includes a list of selected compositions, and a bibliography that includes a number of dissertations.

  • Tucker, Mark. “Duke Ellington.” In The Oxford Companion to Jazz. Edited by Bill Kirchner, 132–147. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    A brief overview of Ellington’s career and status in the context of the jazz history canon, identifying representative recordings and stylistic influences.

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