Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Guide to the Duke Ellington Collection

Collection ID:
Ellington, Duke, 1899-1974
1903 - 1989
Collection is in
. Some materials in
, and
Physical Description:
400 Cubic feet
The collection documents Duke Ellington's career primarily through orchestrations (scores and parts), music manuscripts, lead sheets, transcriptions, and sheet music. It also includes concert posters, concert programs, television, radio, motion picture and musical theater scripts, business records, correspondence, awards, as well as audiotapes, audiodiscs, photographs, tour itineraries, newspaper clippings, magazines, caricatures, paintings, and scrapbooks.

Scope and Contents
Scope and Contents
Dating approximately from the time Duke Ellington permanently moved to New York City in 1923 to the time the material was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in 1988, the bulk of the material in the Duke Ellington Collection is dated from 1934-1974 and comprises sound recordings, original music manuscripts and published sheet music, hand-written notes, correspondence, business records, photographs, scrapbooks, news clippings, concert programs, posters, pamphlets, books and other ephemera. These materials document Ellington's contributions as composer, musician, orchestra leader, and an ambassador of American music and culture abroad. In addition, the materials paint a picture of the life of a big band maintained for fifty years and open a unique window through which to view an evolving American society.
The approximate four hundred cubic feet of archival materials have been processed and organized into sixteen series arranged by type of material. Several of the series have been divided into subseries allowing additional organization to describe the content of the material. For example, Series 6, Sound Recordings, is divided into four subseries: Radio and Television Interviews, Concert Performances, Studio Dates and Non-Ellington Recordings. Each series has its own scope and content note describing the material and arrangement (for example; Series 10, Magazines and Newspaper Articles, is organized into two groups, foreign and domestic, and arranged chronologically within each group). A container list provides folder titles and box numbers.
The bulk of the material is located in Series 1, Music Manuscripts, and consists of compositions and arrangements by Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and other composers. Series 6, Sound Recordings also provides a record of the performance of many of these compositions. The materials in Series 2, Performances and Programs, Series 3, Business Records, Series 8, Scrapbooks, Series 9, Newspaper Clippings, Series 11, Publicity and Series 12, Posters provide documentation of specific performances by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. Ellington was a spontaneous and prolific composer as evidenced by music, lyrical thoughts, and themes for extended works and plays captured on letterhead stationery in Series 3, Business Records, in the margin notes of individual books and pamphlets in Series 14, Religious Materials and Series 15, Books, and in the hand-written notes in Series 5, Personal Correspondence and Notes.
During its fifty-year lifespan, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra were billed under various names including The Washingtonians, The Harlem Footwarmers and The Jungle Band. The soloists were informally called "the band", and Series 3 includes salary statements, IOU's, receipts and ephemera relating to individual band members. Series 1, Music Manuscripts contains the soloists' parts and includes "band books" of several soloists (for example; Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges) and numerous music manuscripts of Billy Strayhorn. The changing role of Strayhorn from arranger hired in 1938 to Ellington's main collaborator and composer of many well-known titles for Duke Ellington and His Orchestra including "Take The A' Train" and "Satin Doll" can be traced in these music manuscripts. Series 7, Photographs and Series 2, Performances and Programs contain many images of the band members and Strayhorn. This Collection also documents the business history of Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. Series 3, Business Records contains correspondence on letterhead stationery and Series 11, Publicity contains promotional material from the various booking agencies, professional companies, and public relations firms that managed the Orchestra.
The materials in the Duke Ellington Collection provide insight into public and institutional attitudes towards African Americans in mid-twentieth-century America. The business records in Series 3 beginning in 1938 and published sheet music in Series 1 depict Duke Ellington's progression from an African-American musician who needed "legitimization" by a white publisher, Irving Mills, to a businessmen who established his own companies including Tempo Music and Duke Ellington, Incorporated to control his copyright and financial affairs. Programs from the segregated Cotton Club in Series 2, Performances And Programs and contracts with no-segregation clauses in Series 3: Business Records further illustrate racial policies and practices in this time period. The public shift in perception of Duke Ellington from a leader of an exotic "Jungle Band" in the 1930s to a recipient of the Congressional Medal Of Freedom in 1970 is evidenced in Series 2, Performances And Programs, Series 12, Posters, Series 7, Photographs and Series 13, Awards. Reviews and articles reflecting Ellington's evolving status are also documented in Series 8, Newspaper Clippings, Series 9, Scrapbooks, Series 10, Newspaper and Magazine Articles.
The materials in the Duke Ellington Collection reflect rapid technological changes in American society from 1923-1982. Sound recordings in Series 6 range from 78 phonograph records of three minutes duration manufactured for play on Victrolas in monaural sound to long-playing (LP) phonograph records produced for stereo record players. Television scripts in Series 4, programs in Series 2 and music manuscripts (for example,
Drum Is A Woman
) in Series 1 demonstrate how the development of television as a means of mass communication spread the Orchestra's sound to a wider audience. The availability of commercial air travel enabled the Ellington Orchestra to extend their international performances from Europe to other continents including tours to Asia, Africa, South America and Australia and archival material from these tours is included in every series.
Series 4, Scripts and Transcripts and Series 6, Audio Recordings contain scripts and radio performances promoting the sale of United States War bonds during World War II, and Series 7, Photographs includes many images of Duke Ellington and His Orchestra's performances for military personnel revealing the impact of historic events on Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. Series 2: Programs and Performances, Series 9, Newspaper clippings and Series 8, Scrapbooks document the 1963 Far East tour aborted as a result of President John F. Kennedy's assassination.
The Duke Ellington Collection contains works by numerous twentieth-century music, literature, and art luminaries. Series 1, Music Manuscripts contains original music manuscripts of William Grant Still, Eubie Blake, Mary Lou Williams, and others. Series 4, Scripts and Transcripts contains a play by Langston Hughes, and Series 12, Posters contains many original artworks.

  • Series 1: Music Manuscripts, circa 1930-1981, undated
  • Series 2: Performances and Programs, 1933-1973, undated
  • Series 3: Business Records, 1938-1988
  • Series 4: Scripts and Transcripts, 1937-1970
  • Series 5: Personal Correspondence and Notes, 1941-1974, undated
  • Series 6: Sound Recordings, 1927-1974
  • Series 7: Photographs, 1924-1972, undated
  • Series 8: Scrapbooks, 1931-1973
  • Series 9: Newspaper Clippings, 1939-1973, undated
  • Series 10: Magazine Articles and Newspaper Clippings, 1940-1974
  • Series 11: Publicity, 1935-1988
  • Series 12: Posters and Oversize Graphics, 1933-1989, undated
  • Series 13: Awards, 1939-1982
  • Series 14: Religious Material, 1928-1974
  • Series 15: Books, 1903-1980
  • Series 16: Miscellaneous, 1940-1974

Biographical / Historical
Biographical / Historical
A native of Washington, DC, Edward Kennedy Ellington was born on April 29, 1899. Edward was raised in a middle-class home in the Northwest section of Washington described by his sister Ruth--younger by sixteen years--as a "house full of love." Ellington himself wrote that his father J.E. (James Edward) raised his family "as though he were a millionaire" but Edward was especially devoted to his mother, Daisy Kennedy Ellington. In 1969, thirty-four years after his mother's death, Ellington accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom with these words, "There is nowhere else I would rather be tonight but in my mother's arms." Both his parents played the piano and Ellington began piano lessons at the age of seven, but like many boys he was easily distracted by baseball.
In his early teens, Ellington sneaked into Washington clubs and performance halls where he was exposed to ragtime musicians, including James P. Johnson, and where he met people from all walks of life. He returned in earnest to his piano studies, and at age fourteen wrote his first composition, "Soda Fountain Rag" also known as "Poodle Dog Rag." Ellington was earning income from playing music at seventeen years of age, and around this time he earned the sobriquet "Duke" for his sartorial splendor and regal air. On July 2, 1918, he married a high school sweetheart, Edna Thompson; their only child, Mercer Kennedy Ellington, was born on March 11, 1919. Duke Ellington spent the first twenty-four years of his life in Washington's culturally thriving Negro community. In this vibrant atmosphere he was inspired to be a composer and learned to take pride in his African-American heritage.
Ellington moved to New York City in 1923 to join and eventually lead a small group of transplanted Washington musicians called "The Washingtonians," which included future Ellington band members, Sonny Greer, Otto Hardwicke and "Bubber" Miley. Between 1923 and 1927, the group played at the Club Kentucky on Broadway and the ensemble increased from a quintet to a ten-piece orchestra. With stride pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith as his unofficial guide, Ellington soon became part of New York's music scene; Smith proved to be a long-lasting influence on Duke's composing and arranging direction. At the Club Kentucky, Ellington came under the tutelage of another legendary stride pianist, "Fats" Waller. Waller, a protege of Johnson and Smith, played solos during the band's breaks and also tutored Ellington who began