Composers Datebook®

Happy Birthday, Duke Ellington!

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974) The River Suite Detroit Symphony; Neeme Järvi, cond. Chandos 9154

Composer's Datebook - April 29, 2021


April 29, 2021


On today’s date in 1899, Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, D.C.

The son of a former White House butler, Elllington was born into a comfortable middle-class African American household. After piano lessons from the aptly named Miss Klinkscales, Ellington composed his first original piece, “The Soda Fountain Rag.” Two important mentors were a local dance band leader, Oliver “Doc” Perry and a high school music teacher named Henry Grant, who introduced Ellington to classical composers like Debussy.

“From both these men I received freely and generously,” recalled Ellington. “ I repaid them as I could, by playing piano for Mr. Perry, and by learning all I could from Mr. Grant.”

Always a stylish dresser, Ellington was nicknamed “The Duke” by friends, and while still in his teens, the five-piece dance band he formed was playing in New York City. That ensemble grew to 11 men by 1930 and to an orchestra of 19 by 1946.

The Ellington orchestra was an ensemble of jazz virtuosos, and for them Ellington would compose some 2000 original works, a body of music extensively documented in public and private recordings, and now regarded as one of the most astonishing musical accomplishments of the 20th century.

Music Played in Today's Program

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974) The River Suite Detroit Symphony; Neeme Järvi, cond. Chandos 9154

On This Day


  • 1879 - British conductor and occasional orchestrator-arranger of Handel scores, Sir Thomas Beecham, in St. Helens (near Liverpool);

  • 1855 - Russian composer Anatoly Liadov (Gregorian date: May 11);

  • 1888 - American popular song composer Irving Berlin (Isidore Balin) (Gregorian date: May 11); There are several possibilities concerning his birth city. It could be Tyumen or Tumen, any one of several villages near the city of Mogilyov, Russia (now Belarus), not the city in Siberia.

  • 1885 - American composer Wallingford Riegger, in Albany, Ga.;

  • 1899 - American composer and jazz band leader, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, in Washington, D.C.;

  • 1920 - American composer Harold Shapero, in Lynn, Mass.;

  • 1929 - Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, in Launeceston;


  • 1712 - Spanish composer and organist Juan Bautista José (Juan Bautista Josep; Joan) Cabanilles (Cavanilles, Cabanillas, Cavanillas), age c. 67, in Valencia;


  • 1784 - Mozart: Violin Sonata in Bb, K. 454, at Vienna's Kärtnertor Theater in the presence of Emperor Joseph II, with the composer at the piano with Italian violinist Regina Strinasacchi; Mozart also performed one of his Piano Concertos, possibly the premiere performance of the Concerto No. 17 in G, K. 453 (see also June 13, 1784);

  • 1798 - Haydn: oratorio "The Creation" at a private performance in Vienna at Schwarzenbgerg Palace; The first public performance occurred n March 19, 1799 (Haydn's nameday);

  • 1927 - Vladimir Dukelsky (Vernon Duke): "Zephyr et Flore"ballet suite, by the Boston Symphony, Serge Koussevitzky conducting;

  • 1928 - Miaskovsky: Symphony No. 9, in Moscow;

  • 1929 - Prokofiev: opera "The Gambler" (sung in French) in Brussels;

  • 1962 - Stravinsky: "Eight Instrumental Miniatures" (based on his "Five Fingers" of 1921), in Toronto by the CBC Symphony conducted by the composer;

  • 1980 - John Williams: "The Reivers " (Suite for narrator and orchestra) with a William Faulkner, as part of the first concert Williams conducted as music director of the Boston Pops, with Burgess Meredith as narrator;

  • 1988 - Peter Maxwell Davies: "Strathclyde Concerto" No. 1 for oboe and orchestra, at Glasgow's City Hall, by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer, with soloist Robin Miller;

  • 1990 - Philip Glass: chamber opera "Hydrogen Jukebox" (to poems by Allen Ginsberg), by the Philip Glass ensemble conducted by Martin Goldray, in a concert version presented at the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia; A staged production was presented at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C,, on May 26, 1990;

  • 1993 - Michael Torke: "Run" for orchestra, by the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Slatkin conducting;


  • 1906 - Victor Herbert conducts a benefit concert at the Hippodrome in New York City for victims of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake;

  • 1969 - On his 70th birthday, Duke Ellington receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House from then-President Richard Nixon.