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Funkstown:  Happy ‘West End’ Birthday -- Duke Ellington

By Frank Leone

April 29, 2024 marks the 125 anniversary of the birth – in the West End – of legendary jazz pianist, composer, and orchestra leader Duke Ellington. He was born at his grandmother’s home at what is now 2121 Ward Place and lived at several other West End locations before moving to the Shaw/U Street area and then New York City. His house no longer exists, and the site is occupied by a U.S. Postal Service building (b. 1985). In 1990, Blackie Auger, the owner of that building, agreed to install a bronze plaque honoring Ellington and name the building for Ellington. In 2012, celebrated artist Aniekan Udofia added a vibrant mural to the building. (Note also Udofia’s mural in Foggy Bottom at 24th and K Streets and several others in D.C.) When you check out the mural, look for the piano keys artwork mounted on a red column at the building entry and in the lobby, a display with more piano keys. In 2010, the triangular park near the birth site, at the intersection of New Hampshire and M Streets NW, was named Duke Ellington Park.

Duke Ellington mural by Aniekan Udofia, 2121 Ward Place The artwork  shows Ellington as a pianist, composer, band leader, and the doves represent his work as a goodwill ambassador (F. Leone, April 2024)

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (April 29, 1899 – May 24, 1974) was born at what was then 2129 Ida Place, where his middle-class parents lived with his grandmother.  His father James Edward was a driver, butler, caterer and then blueprinter at the Navy Yard. His mother Daisy was a high school graduate and the daughter of a D.C. policeman. He had one sister, Rita. Although both parents were pianists and he studied briefly with a Ms. Clinkscales (yes, that’s her real name), his primary interest as a boy was baseball and as he worked at Griffith Stadium near Howard University selling peanuts. For unknown reasons, the Ellington family lived in 14 different locations in northwest Washington. He lived only briefly at West End locations – Ward Place (1899-1901), 1104 23rd St. (1903), and 2107 Pennsylvania Avenue (1908).

From age 11 to 17, Ellington lived in the Shaw neighborhood and learned how to compose and play the piano. Although he studied art at D.C.’s Armstrong Technical High School and was offered an art scholarship to Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, he left school to pursue music. He played at music and dance halls, including Stack O’Lee’s in Foggy Bottom. In July 1918, Ellington married his neighborhood sweetheart Edna Thompson, although the marriage didn’t last. They had a son, Mercer Ellington (1919-1996) who played trumpet and piano, led his own band, worked as his father's business manager, and took over leadership of Duke’s orchestra after his death.

Duke Ellington plaque, 2121 Ward Place (F. Leone, April, 2024)

In 1924, Ellington and his orchestra “The Washingtonians” hit New York. His career took off, working at the Cotton Club from 1927-1931. He and his orchestra then toured the country and the world until his death of lung cancer in 1974. His tours brought him back to Washington, primarily to the Howard Theater, but also to Foggy Bottom locations including Constitution Hall and the Kennedy Center. On June 6, 1946, he became the first Black artist to perform at the Watergate bandshell in front of the Lincoln Memorial, drawing a record-breaking crowd of 11,000 people.

Duke Ellington Park, M Street & New Hampshire Ave. (F. Leone, April 2024)

Ellington took great pride in representing African Americans around the country and the world. He fought this battle against racial problems and tensions with ease and grace. He led one of the greatest jazz groups, wrote more than 1,500 compositions, and became one of the 20th century’s greatest musicians. His music was known as jazz, but he preferred to call it the “American Idiom,” or the “Music of Freedom of Expression.” As Duke said of another composer, “he painted pictures in music.”  See upcoming Kennedy Center events honoring Duke Ellington, and here’s Take the A-Train.

UPDATEJoin West End Library for a live performance celebrating of the life and music of Duke Ellington – May 11, from 2-3:30 pm – details here.

Sources:  John Edward Hass, “Washington’s Duke Ellington,” Washington History, Spring 2004, 26:36-59; Blair A. Ruble, Washington’s U Street: A Biography, Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2010; Edward Kennedy Ellington, Music Is My Mistress, Da Capo Press, 1973; Briana A. Thomas, Black Broadway in Washington, D.C., History Press, 2021; Historic U Street Jazz: Ellington's Washington, George Washington University, 1999; Foggy Bottom History Project.



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