16. Duke Ellington & His Orchestra

Edward “Duke” Ellington was a pianist, composer and bandleader from Washington, D.C. Ellington first took piano lessons at age seven, but pursued other interests before focusing on music at the age of fourteen. He began a professional career as a musician soon thereafter, painting signs by day and playing piano at night. After a brief first attempt to conquer the competitive music scene in New York City’s Harlem District around 1920, Ellington returned to Washington, then returned to Harlem in 1923 and was a successful and influential bandleader for the remainder of his life. A childhood friend nicknamed young Ellington the “Duke”, for “his casual, offhand manner, his easy grace, and his dapper dress, which gave him the bearing of a young nobleman.”¹ Ellington’s elegant demeanor allowed his black orchestra the luxury of performing in front of both black and white audiences.


Edward “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974), bandleader, piano, composer

Panorama – Detailed Ellington Discography

Salon.com – Should Duke Ellington Be Compared To Bach?

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra are the most successful big band of the 20th century, and Duke Ellington is among the greatest songwriters in popular music history.

A list of some of Ellington’s most famous band members is given:

Ivie Anderson (1905-1949), vocals
Albany “Barney” Bigard (1906-1980), clarinet
Jimmy Blanton (1918-1942)
, bass
Lawrence Brown (1907-1988), trombone
Lawrence Brown (1907-1988), trombone
Paul Gonsalves (1920-1974), tenor saxophone
Sonny Greer (1895-1982), drums
Otto Hardwick (1904-1970), alto saxophone
Johnny Hodges (1906-1970)
, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet
James “Bubber” Miley (1903-1932), trumpet, cornet
Ray Nance (1913-1976), trumpet, violin, singer
Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton (1904-1946), trombone
Rex Stewart (1907-1967), cornet
Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967), arranger, composer, piano
Juan Tizol (1900-1984), valve trombone
Ben Webster (1909-1973), tenor saxophone
Cootie Williams (1911-1985), trumpet

Collecting Ellington Music

Duke Ellington music was not part of my childhood. My parents knew many of his songs, but they did not own any Ellington records. I learned about his music by reading music review guides in adulthood. Starting in my early thirties, I purchased two records, Braggin’ In Brass, The Immortal 1938 Year, and At Fargo, 1940 Live, a famous amateur recording, considered one of the great live performances captured on tape as the orchestra toured through North Dakota. Within a few years, I acquired The Blanton-Webster Band, a three-CD compilation from the years 1940-1942, and finally the two-CD The Duke’s Men, Small Groups, Volumes 1, which covers recordings using subsets of the full orchestra between 1934-1938.

That brings us to present time, as I attempt to explore Ellington’s music for this artist profile. I reviewed my Penguin Guide and All Music Guide one last time, read a few articles, and then added about twenty songs from his early and post-World War II career, to offer a broad cross section of song suggestions. Still, many of Ellington’s well-known songs are missing. I could have added many more.

Jungle Music

In the second half of the twenties, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra were featured at the Cotton Club, one of Harlem’s most successful nightclubs. The orchestra adopts a distinctive sound, featuring banjo, muted horn ensembles and the growling trumpet of Bubber Miley. This growling sound was later duplicated by Ellington trumpet players Arthur Whetsol and Cootie Williams.

The Fertile Years (1935-1942)

The orchestra continued to thrive and operate out of New York City. The banjo was eliminated, replaced by a guitar to add subtle strength to the rhythm section. The soloists improved, along with Ellington’s songwriting prowess. The band hit full stride in the late thirties and early forties, creating music considered essential by critics. The sound becomes polished, powerful and swinging. In particular, the Blanton-Webster era of 1940-1942 is of great interest. Duke Ellington becomes the master of the three minute song, necessitated by the recording limitations of the day. This music is now best appreciated by purchasing the remastered compilation called Never No Lament, available on iTunes and Amazon.com as MP3 files. I recommend it without reservation.

Sadly, there are few film clips that celebrate this era. Along with the opening clip of “Take The “A” Train”, here are three representative cuts, including the Latin-influenced “Caravan”, co-written by trombonist Juan Tizol.


In addition to hundreds of three minute songs, Ellington wrote and performed more than a dozen lengthy suites, several of which attempt to capture the experience of being African-American. He strived to capture life’s experiences through the sounds of music. He wrote songs with specific soloists in mind: songs for Bigard, songs for Hodges, songs for Williams, and so on. He was a conduit for his band mates, who came to him with musical ideas, which Ellington helped transform into coherent songs. Ellington liked to compose with his orchestra present, creating the new music together as a unit.

After World War II, bebop and Latin music had expanded the jazz vocabulary, and Ellington’s post-war music reflects this larger palette of ideas and sounds. In later life, he also collaborated with other famous musicians in a variety of small and big band settings.

Duke Ellington passed away in 1974, a victim of lung cancer. Over his lifetime he achieved worldwide acclaim and popularity, and received numerous major awards for excellence in the field of music. For further information on Duke Ellington, start with the Wikipedia biography, and most importantly, enjoy his wonderful music.

Duke Ellington Song Notes:


2. I’ll refrain from listing the exact album where each song is available on iTunes. All suggested songs are available. The earliest version of each song are typically considered best, though there are a few exceptions, such as “Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue” a 1937 song made famous at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. If you have questions, please contact me, or refer to reference sources such as the Jazz Standards website.

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra Songs:

Take The “A” Train, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭✭✭
Concerto For Cootie, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭✭✭
Caravan, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭✭✭
Ko Ko (Take 2), Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭✭✭

Cotton Tail, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭✭
In A Mellotone, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭✭
I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭✭
Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭✭
Harlem Air Shaft, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭✭
I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good), Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭✭
Chelsea Bridge, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭✭
Boy Meets Horn, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭✭
Mount Harissa, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭✭

The Mooche, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
East St. Louis Toodle-Oo, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
The Back Room Romp, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
Tea And Trumpets, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
Jubilesta, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart (Alt), Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
Prologue To Black And Tan Fantasy, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
Sentimental Lady, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
Jack The Bear, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
Warm Valley, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
The Stevedore’s Serenade, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
Perdido, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
Caravan (Alt), Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
Mood Indigo, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
Satin Doll, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue (Live), Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
Fleurette Africaine, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
Tourist Point Of View, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
Isfahan, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
Blood Count, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭

Black Beauty, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
Black And Tan Fantasy, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
Mood Indigo, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
Daybreak Express, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
Frolic Sam, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
Azure, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
The New Black And Tan Fantasy, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
Rose Of The Rio Grande, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
Harmony In Harlem, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
Jeep’s Blues, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
Mood Indigo (Vocal), Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
Flamingo, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
Sepia Panorama, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
Clementine, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
Blue Light, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
Sonnet To Hank Cinq, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
Portrait Of Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
Arabesque Cookie, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
All Day Long, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra

Related Songs:

Azalea, Duke Ellington & Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭
The Beautiful American, Duke Ellington & Louis Armstrong ✭✭
I’m Just A Lucky So And So, Duke Ellington & Louis Armstrong ✭✭

Self Portrait (Of The Bean), Coleman Hawkins & Duke Ellington

In A Sentimental Mood, John Coltrane & Duke Ellington ✭✭✭✭
My Little Brown Book, John Coltrane & Duke Ellington ✭✭✭

Blood Count, The Stan Getz Quartet ✭✭

Caravan, Bunny Berrigan & His Orchestra ✭✭✭
Caravan, The Mills Brothers ✭✭
Caravan, Wynton Marsalis

Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, The Inkspots

East St. Louis Toodle-Oo, Steely Dan

I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Ethel Waters ✭✭
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Red Nichols
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Fats Waller

I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart, Dizzy Gillespie & Stan Gets

In A Mellotone (Take 2), Tiny Moore & Jethro Burns ✭✭

It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), The Boswell Sisters & The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra
It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), The Modern Jazz Quartet ✭✭
It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), Thelonious Monk ✭✭

Ko-Ko, Charlie Parker ✭✭✭

Lush Life, John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman ✭✭✭

The Mooche, Sidney Bechet ✭✭✭

Mood Indigo, The Boswell Sisters

Perdido, The Quintet ✭✭✭

Satin Doll, Jo Jones

Stompy Jones, Sidney Bechet ✭✭✭

Things Ain’t What They Used To Be, Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra ✭✭
Things Ain’t What They Used To Be, Oscar Peterson ✭✭

¹ Quote from “Giants of Jazz” by Studs Terkel, Robert Galster and Milly Hawk Daniel

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