Billy Eckstine
Duke Ellington: Interview 1

Duke Ellington (1899–1974)

Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington, pianist, composer and band leader, is a towering figure in the history of jazz. Born in Washington DC, Ellington was based in New York from the mid-1920s. He led the orchestra he founded in 1923 for the rest of his life.

Members of Ellington’s orchestra, such as saxophonists Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, are considered among the finest players. Some stayed with the orchestra for decades. Ellington wrote or collaborated on more than 1000 compositions. Many pieces, such as “Mood Indigo” and “In a Sentimental Mood”, have become standards, and were perfect for the 78-rpm format. A near 30-year collaboration with composer-arranger-pianist Billy Strayhorn produced further short classics, but also much longer compositions and suites, in itself an innovation.

Ellington cut his first eight records in 1924 and went on to record for most American companies of his era, leaving a vast legacy of work. He performed in and scored several films, starting with Black and Tan (1929), and including classics such as Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Paris Blues (1961). He also composed a handful of stage musicals.

Ellington was part of the Harlem Renaissance which began flowering in the 1920s, and enhanced his standing through engagements at the Cotton Club. He began touring Europe with his orchestra in the 1930s, making his debut at the London Palladium in 1933 to great acclaim. This was the first of many UK tours over several decades.

A pivotal jazz pioneer, Ellington will also be remembered for his eloquence and style.

Biography by Paul Kaufman


Looks back - and forward

The Les Tomkins oral history collection features two interviews with Ellington. This first transcript is of an interview on 24 February 1964 where Ellington talks about his early years, influences, and artists he has worked with and admires. At the end he looks forward to a farewell concert 20 years hence on 24 February 1984, by which time he says he should have grown up and matured!

You can also read the original article from Crescendo, April 1964, pp6–7.


Duke Ellington: Interview 2

Duke Ellington: Interview 1

Image Details

Interview date 1st January 1973
Interview source Jazz Professional
Image source credit
Image source URL
Reference number
Forename Duke
Surname Ellington
Quantity 1

Interview Transcription

When I started I had no thought of writing. I was lucky enough to be able to stumble over the piano and play what two or three things I knew. None of them were anything anybody else could play, or had played. Because I had to do something.

I think the first number I composed (at the age of 16) which fitted comfortably under my fingers was “The Soda Fountain Rag”—so–called because at the time I was a soda jerker. I worked in a place called The Poodle Dog. There was a great pianist there, Lester Dishman.

Wonderful. I learned an awful lot just watching him. And I sometimes recall some of his devices in my playing.

He was a man who sometimes indulged himself—going around from one place to the other. This appearance thing was not totally commercial, or was not necessarily considered a professional activity. People, before they went to work, would often stop at somebody’s house and just play the piano. Then go somewhere else, you know. And as they went along—I mean, naturally the people would serve refreshments. So by the time he got to work he was full of refreshments. As the refreshments took over and he rolled off the piano stool, they’d call in the soda jerker to play the piano. That’s how I fell into my professional beginning.

Oh yes, I was a very smart business man in those days. There were two names in the yellow pages of the telephone book, under the heading Music For All Occasions.

One was Meyer Davis and the other was Louis Thomas. They had one inch of ads. I was 18 years old, working in the fifth band of Louis Thomas’s society group. So I decided: “Well, I think I’ll do this, too.” I put over an inch ad. in. This happened at the time of the first World War. And I began to get engagements.

People started to call me up—a lot of war workers in Washington.

They were all strangers, who didn’t know Louis Thomas from Meyer Davis, Duke Ellington or anybody else. When they wanted a party they’d look in there, see who played music and call up and say they wanted a band.

So I was sending bands out, too. And, of course, every time you’d book another band the price would go up, you know, because this supposedly would be the one. With the better one they got the real Duke Ellington—whoever he was. But his name was in the telephone book, anyway.

I’ll never forget one night. One of these society people down in Warrington, Virginia, or some place—he had a barn and he decided to give a barn dance. He put in a hardwood floor, especially, just for this dance. He told me he wanted four pieces that night and he said: “You have got to be there yourself.” I said: “All right, sure. This’ll be so much money and so forth. Fine.

That’s all settled.” The day before the dance the man called up and he says: “Duke, do you know what I did?” I says: “What did you do?” He says: “We put the hardwood floor in—but we forgot to put a piano up there. What are we going to do?” I says: “Well, don’t worry about a thing, because I play guitar, too.” But I had a real great guitar player—Bill Miller. He played so loud it wouldn’t have made any difference if anybody was there or not.

So I brought a guitar along and I sat there strumming away—and I had the world’s greatest personality.

The original band was Arthur Whetsel, Otto Hardwick, Sonny Greer, Elmer Snowdon. Then it shifted around. Whetsel went back to school—he was going to study medicine, and Bubber Miley came in. Then we added Charlie Irvis on trombone. Then Freddy Guy—who was a bandleader himself, and who used to allow us to sit in his group sometimes. He was the guitar player—or banjorine or something at that time, I think.

We went to the Kentucky Club, on 49th and Broadway, and stayed there for five years. Then finally we went to the Cotton Club and I had to have a big band for that.

So we spread out.

After we were in the Cotton Club—Harry Carney came with us in 1927, Johnny Hodges ‘28, Cootie Williams ‘29, Lawrence Brown ‘32, Strayhorn in ‘39, Jimmy Hamilton ‘42, Cat Anderson 44, Russell Procope 45, Gonsalves 1950—Sam Woodyard about ‘52, I think. And so, after 12 years Sam’s a new man, so to speak.

We’ve had a lot of wonderful people in the band, you know, from time to time—Ben Webster, Blanton, Shorty Baker, Clark Terry, Barney Bigard. Who else? So many wonderful guys. And even Bechet played with us in 1926. He and Bubber Miley used to have what we call cutting contests. One would go out and play ten choruses then the other would do the same. And while one was on the other would be back getting a little taste, to get himself together, and a few new ideas. It was really something. Too bad we don’t have all that on tape today.

Billy Strayhorn came in as a lyricist. He had written some music which was very good—a wonderful marriage of words and music—and I insisted that he came to New York (from Pittsburg) to be my lyricist.

So he came and arrived on the day I was leaving for Sweden. So I left him at home with my son. He had access to my scores. When I came back from Sweden about six weeks later he had discovered how simple this whole operation was.

And he was then an arranger.

Of course, he has been the wonderful producer of some great effects. I would say he brought about the renaissance of vocal arranging. I think the first thing was when he did “Flamingo” with Herb Jeffries. Ever since, vocal arrangements have become more and more elaborate.

Yes, our thinking has been pretty close so far. We’ve decided on what we were going to do—or what we were going to write about—and they’ve come up so close to each other that it isn’t funny. I mean, an example of that is this “Impression Of The Far East” suite that we’re doing now. I didn’t have the vaguest idea what he was doing, nor he of what I was doing.

But we found out that they’re practically the same themes upside down or something.

What we’ve attempted to do is to fit the musician with whatever ornamentation should be provided for him in his solo responsibility. The actual tonal character, or dimension—whatever you want to call it—of each individual is taken into account when you write. Because even in the ensemble writing these values change For one example: if you had any other baritone player, there the values would immediately become different—just in arranging the saxophone section.

No, I don’t feel that the whole sound depends on Hodges and Carney. Because we have whole numbers that we play without them. We play quite a few things at one time or another when one of them or two of them are not even in it. For instance, in “Black And Tan Fantasy” and “Creole Love Call “ neither one of them has any great responsibility.

Also “The Mooch,” possibly.

I mean, we have the luxury of all of these great soloists to play with. And they’re equivalent to the inspiration. You’re influenced to write certain ways. Some people might have a tendency towards playing more notes and some towards playing fewer notes In this way some are more effective by staying on one note, or smearing it, or doing whatever they do with it.

This all constitutes whatever character they have. Some are more delicate. Some are rougher. And that’s where the tailoring comes in.

Imitation? We consider that a form of flattery. Sure, we’ve heard various things. Well, Mingus loves us—we love Mingus. Of course, there are instances like Charlie Barnet. He used to make a speciality of taking all of our music as it was and making his own arrangements of it.

Which was a very clean thing.

On the other hand we’ve had people who took a couple of pages out of our book, wrote a number and called it something else. It became the biggest thing since “St. Louis Blues.” You have to be disturbed about that from the monetary angle. And, of course, I have no monetary interest. I live in the realm of art! Oh, you have to believe in yourself, you know. And protect yourself, somehow or other.

Through restraint, shall we say? When people say to me: “What singer is the greatest?” or “Who do you enjoy the most?” I always say: “Well, there’s no performance that can compare with the performance you are enjoying at the moment.” You know. And I think this covers pretty well everything. There’s nothing to compare with what you’re enjoying at the moment—no matter whether it’s a steak, or a drink, or an et cetera.

The future? Well, I’ll tell you what we’ll do. Let’s celebrate our next—what’s it?—oh, today’s February the 24 th —let’s say, for instance—er, we’ll call it that—we won’t necessarily have to make it that—we’ll call it our Farewell Appearance—on February the 24 th ,1984.

Yes, I’ll be growing up. I should be matured by that time.

Copyright © 1964, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.