Edward K. “Duke” Ellington

William “Count” Basie

*** Legends ***
by Yussuf J. Simmonds
Some Big Band Leaders

Duke Ellington and Count Basie…”
(A Duke and a Count)
Part One


“A Musical Genius of the Big-Band Era”

When Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born in 1899 in the nation’s capital, it had the largest Black population of any major American city, and Black people were relegated to densely populated neighborhoods in urban areas.  As a result, they developed their own clubs, cultural organizations, commerce and especially churches.  Ellington’s parents played the piano and his mother projected a refined manner that taught him how to live elegantly; she would play parlor songs.

Though Ellington began taking piano lessons at eight years old, baseball was his first love; he later said that he missed more lessons than he attended.  At age fifteen, he wrote his first composition, “Soda Fountain Rag.”  He also expressed an air of self-confidence that the grace and ease with which he carried himself earned him the nickname “Duke.”  It stuck with him for the rest for his life.

At first music was incidental in his life because of his parents, he began to listen, watch and imitate ragtime pianists.  As a teenager, he began to show interest in music as a profession, first by playing gigs in cafes and clubs around “D.C.” and then on the “chitlin’ circuit.”  His attachment became so strong that he dropped out of school and in 1916, he turned down a scholarship to study art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn just prior to graduation, even though he had been studying commercial art.

Between 1917 and 1919, Ellington worked as an artist during the day and played the piano at clubs and cafes, at night.  He quickly became a successful ragtime, jazz pianist, bought himself a house and moved out of his parents’ home.  Shortly after he formed his first group, “the Duke’s Serenaders – Colored Syncopators.”  Their first engagement was at the True Reformer’s Hall and it netted him seventy-five cents.  The group began to travel beyond the Washington, D.C. area into nearby states, where they played for private society balls and embassy parties.    As his career began to blossom, Ellington married his high school sweetheart, Edna Thompson, in July 1918 and they had a son, Mercer, who also became a bandleader. 

At 24, he left a successful career in Washington, D.C., he headed to New York; it was the time of the Harlem Renaissance, and like the graduate school of music.  At that time, Harlem was called the Black Mecca, the cultural capital of Black America, and musicians were an all important part of it.  Ellington and his band swiftly blended in, and his performances were mobbed by sold-out crowds on Lenox Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares.

Ellington would play in some of the most highly rated and exclusive clubs, not only in New York, but also in Atlantic City’s Music Box (New Jersey), the Cotton Club and in other states.  He spent his days rehearsing his piano revue and at nights, he would perform it for the crowds.  He later wrote, “our music acquired new colors and characteristics.” 

Like many of the entertainers of that era, Ellington experienced his share of the “color” treatment.  That was the prevailing custom in the U.S. society at that time.  However, when he began making records, only the quality of his music mattered since his customers only heard his music.  In 1924, he made eight records and the following year, he contributed four songs to others.   By 1927, the volume of Ellington’s works necessitated that he sought the services of an agent, and he found one: Irving Mills, who had an eye for talent, and went to work on Ellington’s recordings.  As a result of his association with Mills, Ellington’s popularity and his earnings soared and Mills also became his manager.  Then, the Duke did movie scores and minor movie appearances which gave him additional national exposure.

During the Great Depression, the band survived by doing road tours and he also went overseas in the mid-thirties.  There was a slum in his career, but as the big-band era was intensifying, Ellington reached his peak in the 1940s and stayed there for the next decade.  Some of his hits were: “Sophisticated Lady,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Take the A Train” and “Mood Indigo.”

In the mid-50s, the big band era died out, but Ellington returned to prominence at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957 and later on at the Monterey Jazz Festival.  In 1958, he did a live television production, a European tour and the movie scores for two movies.

Ellington was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1965 at 66 years old; he also performed his first Concert of Sacred Music, which fused Christian liturgy with jazz.  Ellington received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969.  In France, he was awarded the Legion of Honor award in 1973.  A piano on which he performed is housed in the Smithsonian Museum of American History and there is a statue of Ellington at his piano at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall.

According to a big band historian, the expertise of his ensemble allowed Ellington to break away from the conventions of band-section scoring.

Instead, he used new harmonies to blend his musicians’ individual sounds and emphasized congruent sections and a supple ensemble that featured the full bass-clef sound. He illuminated subtle moods with ingenious combinations of instruments; among the most famous examples is “Mood Indigo” in his 1930 setting for muted trumpet, un-muted trombone, and low-register clarinet.

Ellington left a body of musical work when he passed in 1974, a month after his 75th birthday. 


“The first leader of a Kansas City style swing band to rise to national fame”

Born William James Basie in 1904 in Red Bank, New Jersey, he became a famous jazz pianist, organist, bandleader, and composer, and led his jazz orchestra almost continuously for nearly 50 years as a guide and mentor for many other notable musicians.  Young Basie’s mother gave him his first piano lessons and did extra work to be able to afford piano instructions for him. He was inspired by the local carnival shows where he did chores and learned to operate the spotlights.  His break came when he substituted for the pianist who failed to arrive by show time, and learned quickly to improvise music.

Though Basie liked drums, by 15, he was doing piano exclusively playing with pick-up groups for dances, resorts, and amateur shows, and when not playing a gig, he hung with other local musicians where he picked up on upcoming play dates, and also some jobs.  At 20, Basie went to Harlem, a hotbed of jazz during the Harlem Renaissance.  There Basie met many of the Harlem musicians – of the past, present and those like himself, on the way up.

Basie toured in several acts between 1925 and 1927, including the Columbia Burlesque and the vaudeville circuits as a soloist and accompanist.  His touring took to many cities where he also met many great jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong.  Back in Harlem, Basie got his first steady job as a piano player at a place that catered to “uptown celebrities where he met Fats Waller, who taught him how to play the organ.  Another musician, Willie “the Lion” Smith, helped Basie out by arranging gigs at house-rent parties, introduced him to other top musicians, and taught him some new piano techniques.

While he was in Tulsa in 1928, Basie was invited to join one of the big bands, which played mostly in Texas and Oklahoma and it was at that time he began to be known as “Count” Basie.  The following year, Basie became the pianist with the Moten big band based in Kansas City, which inspired him to raise his band to the level of the Duke’s.  In addition to playing piano, Basie had also become a co-arranger and would occasionally play dual pianos with Moten.

By the end of 1936, Basie and his band was billed as Count Basie and His Barons of Rhythm.  They moved from Kansas City to Chicago, and became known for its rhythm section and the use of two tenor saxophone players; most bands had just one.  During the same year, the band participated in a recording session but Basie could not be named on the record because he had already signed with Decca Records.  His first Decca releases were in 1937 were “Shoe Shine Boy,” “Evening,” “Boogie Woogie,” and “Oh, Lady Be Good.”

Back in New York, they headquartered and rehearsed at the Woodside Hotel and began playing regularly at the Roseland Ballroom.  As a newcomer, some of the reviews were unkind to Basie’s band saying it lacked polish and presentation.  Basie was soon introduced to Billie Holiday who had begun singing with the band.  After competing with another band that had Ella Fitzgerald, Basie and Holiday got raving magazine reviews, a big boost and wider recognition.

In 1939, Holiday left, then Basie and his band made a cross-country tour, including their first West Coast dates. A few months later, Basie signed with the William Morris Agency, who got them better fees and greater exposure, but his base was still New York.  In 1942, Basie moved to Queens with Catherine Morgan, after being married to her for a few years. On the West Coast, the band did performances for Armed Forces Radio with Hollywood stars and singer Dinah Shore. But during the war years, there were a lot of member turnovers; and dance hall bookings were down sharply.

The big band era appeared to have ended after the war, and Basie disbanded the group. In 1950, he headlined a short film and reformed his group as a 16-piece orchestra in 1952, prompting a return to Big Band and promoting the new band through recordings.  The jukebox era had begun.

In 1954, the band made its first European tour. Jazz was especially strong in France, The Netherlands, and Germany in the 1950s.  In 1957, Basie released a live album with a best-selling instrumental as the title song.  The band also made two tours in the British Isles, a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II and a guest appearance on an ABC television show.

In January 1960, Basie performed at one of the five John F. Kennedy Inaugural Balls. That summer, Basie and Duke Ellington combined forces for the recording First Time! The Count Meets the Duke.

Basie recorded for the first time with Frank Sinatra in 1962’s and for a second time in 1964, which was arranged by Quincy Jones.  In May 1970, Sinatra performed in London’s Royal Festival Hall with the Basie orchestra. Basie also performed with Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bing Crosby, and Sarah Vaughan.

Count Basie’s health began deteriorating in 1976 when he suffered a heart attack that put him out of commission for several months. Following another stay in the hospital in 1981 he began appearing on stage driving an electric wheel chair. Count Basie died in 1984 of cancer at 79.

In addition to a number of Grammy awards, the Count and his big bands won the following Jazz polls: Esquire’s Silver Award in 1945; Down Beat reader’s poll in 1955, ’57 -’59; Metronome Poll ’58 -’60; Down Beat Critics Poll ’54 -’57; Playboy All Stars’ All Stars ’59. As pianist Basie won the Metronome Poll in ’42 – ’43. In 1958, Count Basie was elected to the Down Beat Hall Of Fame.

Basie died of pancreatic cancer in Hollywood, Florida in April 1984 at the age of 79.

Count Basie introduced several generations of listeners to the Big Band sound and left an influential catalog. The Count Basie Theatre and Count Basie Field in his hometown of Red Bank, New Jersey were named in his honor. The street on which he lived, Mechanic Street, has been named Count Basie Way.