Though most consider him a jazz master, Ellington is in a category by himself…he called it “beyond category.” A pianist, composer and bandleader, Ellington did it all. He wrote more than a thousand compositions, many now considered standards of the Great American Songbook. His style often reflected his collaborators, whether that collaborator was a songwriting partner or a particularly talented musician in his big band.
Duke Ellington was born in Washington, D.C., the grandson of slaves, in 1899. He learned music from his parents, both of whom were pianists. His mother instilled in him the grace and elegance he became known for throughout his storied career. He was an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and nurtured many young talents, including Hoagy Carmichael, Dorothy Fields, Harold Arlen, and Billy Strayhorn, who became his closest collaborator.
He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966 and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1971 and the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1978. In 1969, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At his funeral in 1974, attended by 12,000 people, Ella Fitzgerald said it all: “A genius has passed.” His music lives on as music lovers around the world listen to “Mood Indigo,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” or “Take the A Train.”