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The Story of Duke and Ella

Following International Jazz Day on April 30 2024, and ahead of Ella & Ellington at City Varieties Music Hall in one month, we’re taking a look at the musical history of jazz icons Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.

Written by Aaron Cawood

Duke Ellington

Born in 1899, Edward Ellington first set his sights on being a painter. Before a move to New York in 1923 would set him on the path of a measurable music career, his parents’ mutual interest in playing piano led him to start lessons himself when he was seven. Though baseball and art took up more of his time, his sneaking into a poolroom from 14 opened his eyes to new and interesting types of piano music – far removed from the arias of his father or the parlour songs of his mother, as he was introduced to the world of ragtime. When it came time to decide what he wanted for himself, he rejected an art scholarship from the Pratt Institute, and went on to study commercial art; a course from which he would eventually drop out.

Once in New York City, he led an ensemble group that grew to 10 players. Their regular residencies at the Cotton Club established them in the music scene and led to the continued growth of the group. Among them, besides Duke, many would go on to become jazz icons in their own right – including Rex Stewart, Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams. Ellington’s band went from strength to strength, including being invited to the White House in 1931 ahead of their 1933 tour of Europe – expanding away from their American audience and engaging with the following they had developed in the UK, France and the Netherlands. Combined with the band’s music beginning to be used in films, it was undeniable that Duke Ellington had broken into the mainstream.

A black and white photo of Duke Ellington.

Duke Ellington

Through the 1940s, Ellington’s focus shifted to long-form compositions, further from the three-minute-long pieces jazz listeners were more accustomed to. The war had a diminishing effect on their success, as both labels and the public engaged less and less with musicians. Though Duke was subsidising the pay of bandmates using his composition royalties, it didn’t stop members from leaving the group (including the aforementioned Johnny Hodges.)

It wouldn’t be until the late-1950s that Ellington was able to use live performance as a way to step back into the limelight, which included a Time magazine cover and a new contract with Columbia Records. And, crucially for our story, this was also the period in which Ella Fitzgerald recorded The Duke Ellington Songbook.

Ella Fitzgerald

A black and white photo of Ella Fitzgerald.

Ella Fitzgerald

In 1917, Ella Fitzgerald was born in Virginia, moving to New York following her parents’ separation. Despite a turbulent start and financial troubles at home, Ella was a social child – and one of the ways this manifested was in singing and dancing with her friends, notably at the same Apollo Theatre in Harlem where Duke Ellington and his band would go on to perform in the 1930s.

And that theatre would become crucial, not only to Ella’s success but to her personal survival. In 1934, two years after the devastating death of her mother, which had derailed much of Ella’s personal life, her name was drawn to perform at Amateur Night at the Apollo. And the ball began rolling.

Having impressed a musician that night, it wasn’t long until Ella was put into the right spaces to rub shoulders with people who could help her develop her career. Ella flew through the talent show circuit, collecting wins as she went, and found her way to joining Chick Webb’s band, after being introduced by Bardu Ali.

This marked the start of a recording career for Fitzgerald, including hits such as (If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr Paganini) and A-Tisket, A-Tasket. When Chick Webb passed away in 1939, Ella took over as bandleader; Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band was born.

As the 1940s and 50s pushed on, Fitzgerald saw herself through a marriage, an annulment, signing to new management and the beginning of her timeless series of songbook releases. Throughout this series, Fitzgerald would take to the microphone and record interpretations of famous musicians’ works; including the likes of Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and George and Ira Gershwin. Unlike others in the series, though, when Ella sat down to interpret the music of Duke Ellington, Duke joined her.

Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook would go on to become Fitzgerald’s most critically and commercially successful body of work; the collision of two superstars in the jazz scene creating the perfect storm. Their collaboration did not end here, as their creative connection led them to later release Ella at Duke’s Place in 1965, and the live albums The Stockholm Concert and Ella and Duke at the Cote D’Azur in 1966.

Strictly Smokin’ Big Band

Though Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald may no longer be able to perform together, the next best thing comes to The Varieties in one month!

Strictly Smokin’ Big Band presents Ella & Ellington; a live love letter to the legacy of these jazz stars. Performed by an 18-piece band with live vocals, classics like Let’s Do ItTime After TimeA Tisket, A TasketPerdido are set to have audiences tapping their feet and feeling the rhythm.

Having been operating for over 20 years, Strictly Smokin’ Big Band has a long-running repertoire of varied live and recorded music.

Find out more about the band

Black and white images of Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington behind text that reads '...One of the UK's most effortlessly fluent big bands - Jazz Alert | Ella & Ellington | Strictly Smokin' Big Band'