King of Jazz: 12 Best Duke Ellington Songs

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in the Washington, D.C. area in 1899 and was the son of a White House butler. His comfortable upbringing and “aristocratic” manners earned him the nickname “Duke” among his friends. Ellington showed an interest in music at a very young age, and by the time he was seven years old, he was taking weekly piano lessons. The piano would go on to become the budding musician’s instrument of choice. He spent the 1920s playing shows in the D.C. area, and by the ‘30s he was recognized by the music industry as a jazz visionary. Duke’s professional career spanned half a century. Not only was he a genius composer of the jazz genre, he was also a formidable band leader, managing to keep his orchestra intact through several decades. A rare accomplishment back then.

Though the swing era would eventually take over the genre (he was inadvertently a key figure in its rise), Ellington remained a jazz pianist and arranger who took a more classicist approach, writing pieces that showcased his band’s dexterity and range while fusing the classical genre with jazz in ways that were both beautifully traditional and defiantly modern. His hit era throughout the ‘30s and into the ‘40s produced some of his most tangible, shorter pieces. But ultimately, Sir Duke is known for his epic style pieces that tell dramatic, dynamic stories through expertly crafted melodies and rhythms. Explore our top picks by the legendary, Grammy-award winning jazz legend below.

12. Satin Doll

Duke Ellington’s band tells the story of a confident woman with his “last pop hit,” ‘Satin Doll.’ According to his son Mercer, supposedly the vivacious, uplifting instrumental was written for his mistress. The 1953 track was a big hit on Billboard charts, and subsequently had a lot of staying power as it was used in off-broadway plays (One unusual play was even named after the song. It was a reinterpretation of the hit Disney film Snow White called Satin Dolls and the 7 Little People). Ellington’s longtime friend and collaborator Billy Strayhorn assisted him with the songwriting, and later, Johnny Mercer actually wrote lyrics to the instrumental piece, which facilitated many covers of the hit well into the ‘60s.


11. Cotton Tail

While inspired by fellow composer George Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm,’ Ellington wrote the fast-paced, rollicking ‘Cotton Tail.’ Featuring thumping bass and one of saxophonist Ben Webster’s best solos, the commanding piece went on to define one of the American composer’s most defining qualities, using his expertise regarding the rules of music so he could break them in resounding fashion. With a swinging feel, Ellington actually never gave much love to the jazzy subgenre. He once commented that “swing” was “business” and “jazz” was “music.” The genius musician’s work required audience’s attentive ears, rather than a packed dance floor. This 1940s classic highlights his daring range which set him apart from the rest.


10. Prelude To A Kiss

Despite this ballad’s slower tempo, ‘Prelude to a Kiss’ is one of Ellington’s most difficult compositions to perform. That’s the main reason why it’s not quite as enduring as his others. Despite this, it still deserves a place among his best work. Recorded in 1938, Ellington segwayed away from his jazz-centric composing style and meshed classical stylings together with jazz-oriented elements. Ever the rebellious composer, the romantic, atmospheric nature of the recording was a direct, purposive contrast to the “Tin Pan Alley” movement in New York at the time, which focused on danceable material.


9. Mood Indigo

Musicians of the early jazz era were often inspired by each other’s compositions, resulting in the “borrowing” of rhythms, phrases, and melodies. Rearrangement and reinterpretation became an integral part of the genre. Both Duke Ellington and George Gershwin were two of jazz’s most influential figures. Both sometimes borrowed from each other throughout their careers. For instance, Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ can be likened to Ellington’s ‘Mood Indigo.’ The birth of ‘Mood Indigo’ can be traced all the way back to New Orleans, where musician Lorenzo Tio, Jr. Bigard, simply known as “Tio,” wrote a tune called ‘Dreamy Blues’ that Ellington loved, and it heavily influenced his writing process for this piece. The popularity of the tune over the years has made it an official Ellington “standard,” and its features are striking and unique. Not only does bandmate Barney Bigard deliver one of his most famous clarinet solos, but Ellington’s masterful blending of the orchestral instruments together once again goes against convention of the times, which generally took a more individualized approach to instrumental work.


8. Come Sunday

Ellington once jokingly stated, “I don’t need time. I need a headline!”. When his manager came to him with a performance date set at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall, Ellington got what he wished for. The headline-worthy upcoming concert gave him the spark of inspiration needed to compose one of his most arduous undertakings ever, his Black, Brown, and Beige “suite.” A series of orchestral compositions, the piece tells the story of African-Americans’ role in music, from the continent of Africa to the deep south, all the way up to Harlem and its cultural renaissance. ‘Come Sunday’ is meant to evoke a deeply spiritual moment between the orchestra and the listener. With a paired down delivery highlighting a seemingly weeping violin, the movement is ushered in early amid the broad scope of work. Ellington premiered Black, Brown, and Beige in 1943. The performance quickly became known as one of his most legendary concerts. In 1977, the concert in its entirety was finally released as a live album: The Carnegie Hall Concerts, January 1943.


7. I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)

The jazz pianist wrote this compelling, dynamic composition for a 1940s play tackling discrimination and racial issues called Jump for Joy. As Ellington’s career continued throughout the ‘40s and into the ‘60s, he worked more and more on projects that focused on African-Americans as serious musicians and performers. He took the job of writing the score for the musical seriously, and one of the songs featured in the production was ‘I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good).’ With captivating sax work by Johnny Hodges that acts as the centerpiece, though the song was originally part of an overall score, its strength made it a beloved standalone piece among jazz fans.


6. Haupe

One of several songs composed for the hit 1959 movie Anatomy of A Murder, ‘Haupe’ is a languid piece perfect for the black and white film. A courtroom drama centered around a soldier who’s been accused of murder, Anatomy of a Murder received several Academy Award nominations, and Ellington’s film score won three different Grammys following the movie release. Aside from the film’s epic story and musical arrangements, it made history in other ways as well. Not only was it the first Hollywood film production to hire an African-American composer, it was also one of the first film’s to use a jazz-centric soundtrack.


5. Don’t Get Around Much Anymore (Never No Lament)

A happy-go-lucky style piece from 1940, ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore (Never No Lament)’ was a huge hit for Ellington and his band. It climbed all the way to the top spot on Billboard’s R&B chart. One of his more commercially-driven pieces with an easygoing feel, this would go on to become one of many “Ellington Standards” as more and more contemporary artists recorded their own versions of the number one hit. Many of the renditions focus on the vocal version of the tune Bob Russell penned, which also became wildly popular. Just a few cover versions include those by Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and B.B. King.


4. Take the “A” Train

Sir Duke, as his friends loved to call him, proudly opened each set in the ‘60s with this Billy Strayhorn arrangement. Ellington’s longtime collaborator was inspired to write the swing-tinged number in honor of the Subway route that took passengers to Harlem’s Sugar Hill District. Due to the song being the opener for so many of Duke’s concerts, ‘Take the “A” Train’ eventually became one of his signature songs. Not only was it a huge success in America, but it made it all the way over to Soviet Russia as well, where it became a symbol of hope and freedom for those hoping to one day escape communism.


3. Caravan

With a zany feel later heralded and imitated by musicians of “exotica,” which infuses many different rhythmic and style elements ranging from the South Pacific to Africa, ‘Caravan’ was an early breakout composition for Ellington. Featuring syncopated acoustic percussion and moody piano phrasings, Duke first released the original in 1936. Since then, the song has taken on a life of its own, being covered by many different artists at least 350 times. In 2014, the song experienced a resurgence yet again when it became an integral part of the hit jazz film about an up and coming drummer, Whiplash.


2. It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)

Even though Ellington distanced himself from the jazz swing movement that would overpower the genre throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s, his early trademark track, ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it ain’t got that swing)’ was actually one of the first jazz songs to use the term “swing” in the title. Ellington’s compositions sure did swing, but he was known for his classical prowess and genius-level creativity as both a pianist and orchestral leader of big-band jazz. This tune in particular was written in honor of Duke’s former bandmate, Bubber Miley, who was a talented trump player. The song’s title was one of Miley’s beloved catchphrases. Though much of Ellington’s music would later have lyrics put to it, this is a rare gem that featured lyrics right off the bat written by Irving Mills and sung by Ivie Anderson. Along with being one of Ellington’s most famous compositions, it’s also one of Jazz’s most treasured standards.


1. In A Sentimental Mood With John Coltrane

One of Sir Duke’s most memorable tracks, though he recorded ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ with fellow musician John Coltrane in 1963, the tune actually dates all the way back to 1935. He released the original version with his band that year. And he wrote it off the cuff during a post-show performance at a house party. Ellington composed the music in front of everyone as they looked on in amazement. With a gentle yet attention-grabbing melody, Ellington’s piano work is hard to get out of your head. Add in Coltrane’s legendary sax work in 1963, and the ethereal composition reaches new heights. The authoritative standard has been covered many times by other artists ranging from Tony Bennett to former rapper and producer Mac Miller.

Photo of author

About Ged Richardson

Ged Richardson is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of ZingInstruments.com. He has been featured in Entrepreneur, PremierGuitar, Hallmark, Wanderlust, CreativeLive, and other major publications. As an avid music fan, he spends his time researching and writing about new and old music, as well as testing and reviewing music-related products. He's played guitar in various bands, from rock to gypsy jazz. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel, where he geeks out about his favorite bands.

Read more

Leave a Comment