The Best of Duke Ellington’s Jazz Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Duke Ellington’s jazz music was some of the best of its time. Here’s a look at some of his best work.


Duke Ellington is one of the most important figures in the history of jazz music. He was a composer, bandleader, and pianist who created some of the most influential and popular music of the 20th century. Duke Ellington’s jazz compositions are characterized by their complex harmonies, inventive melodic lines, and intricate rhythms. He is considered one of the greatest American composers of all time.

Duke Ellington’s career spanned over 50 years, during which he composed thousands of songs and recordings. His best-known compositions include “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “Satin Doll,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and “Mood Indigo.” Duke Ellington’s music was popular both in the United States and internationally. He toured extensively throughout his career, performing for royalty, heads of state, and millions of fans around the world.

Duke Ellington was a true innovator who left a lasting legacy on American culture and music. His influence can still be heard in the work of contemporary jazz musicians. If you’re a fan of jazz music, or simply looking to discover some great American music, then this list of Duke Ellington’s best songs is for you.

The Duke’s early years and his first band

Duke Ellington was born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington D.C. in 1899. His parents were James Edward and Daisy Kennedy Ellington. They raised him in a comfortable middle-class home, but when Duke was seven, his mother died, leaving his father to raise him alone. Duke’s father worked as a butler at the time, but he soon found a new job as a clerk at the U.S. Treasury Department.

Duke showed an early interest in music, and he started taking piano lessons when he was seven. He continued taking lessons for several years, but he was never a very good student. He preferred to play by ear rather than read sheet music. When Duke was fifteen, he and some friends formed their first band, which they called the Washingtonians. The band was quite successful, and it gave Duke his first taste of the life of a professional musician.

In 1918, Duke left Washington to attend the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. He only stayed for a year before moving back to Washington to join the Navy Band during World War I. After the war, Duke returned to the Washingtonians and resumed his career as a professional musician.

The Cotton Club years

Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra were the house band at the Cotton Club in Harlem from 1927 to 1931. It was during this time that Ellington wrote some of his most famous compositions, including “Mood Indigo,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “Solitude.” The Cotton Club Orchestra was known for its stylish renditions of popular songs, as well as its own original compositions. Ellington’s sophisticated style of jazz would have a lasting impact on the course of American music.

The Blanton-Webster band

Regarded by many as Duke Ellington’s finest hour, the Blanton-Webster band of the early 1940s boasted an all-star lineup of soloists that included tenor titan Ben Webster, trombone great Lawrence Brown, unpredictable trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, and the ever-resourceful Barret Deems on drums. The band’s recordings from this era are considered among the finest examples of orchestral jazz ever recorded.

The Ellington Orchestra in the 1950’s

The Ellington Orchestra in the 1950’s
The 1950’s were a time of great change for Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. The big band sound was beginning to decline in popularity, and Ellington was forced to make some personnel changes. He replaced several members of his Orchestra with younger, more contemporary musicians. This new sound can be heard on some of Ellington’s most popular recordings from the 1950’s, including “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Satin Doll.”

Later years and Duke’s final recordings

Duke Ellington continued touring and recording throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, though his band was no longer as commercially successful as it had been in its heyday. In 1962, Ellington revived his sacred music concert, which resulted in a Grammy Award-winning album called Black, Brown, and Beige. He also wrote pieces for the New York City Ballet and for two symphony orchestras. In 1969, he composed an African-American opera called Queenie Pie.

Ellington’s health began to decline in the mid-1970s, and he stopped touring in 1971. He made his final public appearance in 1974, at the French Quarter Festival in New Orleans. He died of cancer on May 24, 1974, at the age of 75.

At the time of his death, Duke Ellington was working on what would become one of his most ambitious projects: a three-hour suite of music based on the life of American president Theodore Roosevelt. The suite was never finished, but several of its sections were released posthumously on the album The University of Columbia Jazz Band Plays Duke Ellington’s The Queen’s Suite (1977).


After presenting Duke Ellington’s importance to the world of jazz music, it is evident that his work still resonates with people today. While there are many different ways to enjoy his music, it is clear that his recordings have stood the test of time and continue to be enjoyed by new generations. If you have never listened to Duke Ellington’s music, I encourage you to give it a try. You might just find yourself falling in love with this classic form of American art.

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