Edward Kennedy Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 to James Edward Ellington and Daisy Kennedy Ellington who lived in the home of his maternal grandparents at 2129 Ward Place, NW in Washington, D.C. James Edward Ellington was born in Lincolnton, North Carolina on April 15, 1879 and moved to Washington, D.C. in 1886 with his parents. Daisy Kennedy, was born in Washington, D.C. on January 4, 1879, and was the daughter of a former slave. J.E. made blueprints for the United States Navy; he was a butler for Dr. Middleton F. Cuthbert, a prominent white physician, and occasionally worked as a White House caterer. Daisy and J.E. were both piano players--she playing parlor songs and he operatic airs--and at the age of seven Ellington began taking piano lessons from Mrs. Marietta Clinkscales who lived at 1212 Street NW. The Clinkscales address is often, but erroneously, given as Ellington's childhood home. Daisy surrounded her son with dignified women who reinforced his manners and taught him to live elegantly. From his father, he absorbed self-confidence. Ellington’s childhood friends noticed that "his casual, offhand manner, his easy grace, and his dapper dress gave him the bearing of a young nobleman", and began calling him Duke. Ellington credited his "chum" Edgar McEntree, "a sharp dresser himself," with the nickname. "I think he felt that in order for me to be eligible for his constant companionship, I should have a title. So he called me Duke."
Though Ellington had been taking piano lessons from the age of eight, he was more concerned with baseball. "President Roosevelt (Teddy) would come by on his horse sometimes, and stop and watch us play," he recalled. Ellington went to Armstrong High School in Washington, D.C. He got his first job selling peanuts at Washington Senator’s baseball games where he conquered his stage fright. In the summer of 1914, while working as a soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Café, he wrote his first composition, "Soda Fountain Rag" (also known as the "Poodle Dog Rag"). Ellington created "Soda Fountain Rag" by ear, because he had not yet learned to read and write music. "I would play the 'Soda Fountain Rag' as a one-step, two-step, waltz, tango, and fox trot," Ellington has recalled. "Listeners never knew it was the same piece. I was established as having my own repertory." In his autobiography, Music is my Mistress, (1973) Ellington comments he missed more lessons than he attended, feeling at the time that playing the piano was not his talent. Over time, this would change. Ellington started sneaking into Frank Holiday's Poolroom at age fourteen. Hearing the poolroom pianists play ignited Ellington's love for the instrument and he began to take his piano studies seriously.
Ellington began listening to, watching, and imitating ragtime pianists, not only in Washington, D.C., but also in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, where he vacationed with his mother during the summer months. Dunbar High School music teacher Henry Lee Grant gave him private lessons in harmony. With the additional guidance of Washington pianist and band leader Oliver "Doc" Perry, Ellington learned to read sheet music, project a professional style, and improve his technique. Ellington was also inspired by his first encounters with James P. Johnson and Luckey Roberts, early jazz piano giants. Later in New York he took advice from Will Marion Cook, Fats Waller, and Sidney Bechet. Ellington started to play gigs in cafés and clubs in and around Washington, D.C. and began to realize his deep love for music. His attachment grew to be so strong that he turned down an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1916 and dropped out of Armstrong Manual Training School where he was studying commercial art just three months shy of graduation.
From 1917 through 1919, Ellington launched his musical career, painting commercial signs by day and playing piano by night. He also had a messenger job with the U.S. Navy and State Departments. Ellington moved out of his parents' home and into one that he had bought for himself as he quickly became a successful ragtime, jazz, and society pianist. At first, he played in other ensembles, then dove into the music business in late 1917 with the formation of his first group, The Duke’s Serenaders ("Colored Syncopators", his telephone directory advertising proclaimed) to which he was not only a member, but also the booking agent. His first play date was at the True Reformer's Hall where he took home 75 cents.
Ellington played throughout the Washington, D.C. area and into Virginia for private society balls and embassy parties. The band included: Otto Hardwick, who switched from bass to saxophone; Arthur Whetsol on trumpet; Elmer Snowden on banjo; and Sonny Greer on drums. The boys thrived, performing for both African-American and white audiences, a rarity during the racially divided times. With his career taking off he felt secure enough to marry his high school sweetheart, Edna Thompson, on July 2, 1918 when he was 19. Shortly after their marriage, on March 11, 1919 Edna gave birth to their only son, Mercer Kennedy Ellington., who led his own band and took over his father's band after Duke's death. Mercer was an important archivist of his father's musical life. Mercer played trumpet and was the road manager of his father's band. Ellington's sister, Ruth, later ran Tempo Music, Ellington's music publishing company. His granddaughter, Mercedes is a dancer who has performed in network television productions. Grandson Paul Ellington is a pianist and composer who now leads the Duke Ellington Orchestra.