DUKE ELLINGTON, 1960 - Photography Archive - The Gordon Parks Foundation

Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and Aaron Bell, Los Angeles, California, 1960

Parks was seventeen when, in 1929, he first met Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington in the back of the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. A veteran of Harlem’s famed Cotton Club, Ellington was widely recognized as one of the jazz world’s leading figures—and he was in the process of effectively reinventing the genre by blending big-band orchestral arrangements with solo improvisation. By contrast, Parks was living on the streets, playing piano in flophouses, hanging around nightclubs and pool halls, and skipping school. He was enthralled by Ellington’s style, grace, and musical genius.

Ellington became a hero for the young man. Decades later, in 1960, Parks was overjoyed by the opportunity to tour with Ellington’s band, calling it “a trip through paradise” (To Smile in Autumn, 1979). By then, Ellington was the foremost big-band leader, having recorded with John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. In his photographs, Parks revealed his admiration for the musician’s pensive elegance, magnetic personality, and exceptional stage presence.