This Day in Black History: April 29, 1899

Legendary jazz star Duke Ellington was born.

Posted: 04/29/2013 07:00 AM EDT

On April 29, 1889, accomplished jazz pianist, composer and bandleader Duke Ellington was born in Washington, D.C. He remains one of the most influential figures in American music.

In a career that spanned 50 years, he composed some 3,000 songs and performed all around the world. Born Edward Kennedy Ellington, he earned the nickname "Duke" because of his gentleman-like demeanor. He began playing piano at age 7 and wrote his first composition, "Soda Fountain Rag," at age 15.

By the 1920s, Ellington's popularity grew as bandleader in the New York City club scene. Over the years, his band mates included trumpeter Cootie Williams, cornetist Rex Stewart and saxophonist Johnny Hodges. In the '30s and '40s, Ellington's career exploded, with his thematic style scoring him many hits. His best-sellers include "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" (1931) and "Sophisticated Lady" (1932), among many others.

In 1996, Ellington was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and earned 12 Grammy Awards in all. Additionally, he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969 and the Legion of Honor by France in 1973, the highest civilian honors in the United States and France.

At age 75, the famed musician passed away from lung cancer and pneumonia on May 24, 1974. Nearly 12,000 people attended his funeral in Bronx, New York.

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(Photo: Gilles Petard / Redferns / Getty Images)

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