Mercer Ellington (Mercer Kennedy Ellington)

Mercer Ellington

Mercer Ellington was born in Washington, DC, the son of the composer, pianist, and bandleader Duke Ellington and Edna Thompson. By the age of eighteen he had written his first piece to be recorded by his father (“Pigeons and Peppers”). He attended New College for the Education of Teachers at Columbia University, New York University and The Juilliard School. In 1939, 1946–1949, and 1959 he led his own bands, many of whose members went on to play with his father, or to achieve independent fame (notably Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Dorham, Idrees Sulieman, Chico Hamilton, Charles Mingus, and Carmen McRae). During the 1940s in particular he wrote pieces that became standards, including “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”, “Jumpin’ Punkins”, “Moon Mist”, and “Blue Serge”. He also wrote the lyrics to Hillis Walters’ popular song, “Pass Me By” (1946), which was recorded by Lena Horne, Carmen McRae and Peggy Lee. Mercer Ellington composed for his father from 1940 to 1941, worked as road manager for Cootie Williams’ orchestra (1941 to 1943 and again in 1954), and returned to work for his father playing alto horn in 1950, and then as general manager and copyist from 1955 to 1959. In 1960 he became Della Reese’s musical director, then in 1962 went on take a job as a radio DJ in New York for three years. In 1965 he again returned to his father’s orchestra, this time as trumpeter and road manager.

When his father died in 1974, Ellington took over the orchestra, taking it on tour to Europe in 1975 and 1977 (his own son, Edward Ellington, played in the band in the late 1970s, and his other son, Paul Mercer Ellington, took it over at a later date). Ellington also has a daughter Mercedes Ellington. In the early 1980s Mercer Ellington became the first conductor for a Broadway musical of his father’s music, Sophisticated Ladies. Mercer’s Digital Duke won the 1988 Grammy Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. Before his death the Duke Ellington Orchestra included Barrie Lee Hall, Rocky White, Tommy James, Gregory Charles Royal, J.J. Wiggins, Onzy Matthews, Shelly Carrol among others. Mercer Ellington performed up to the day of his death. Mercer Ellington died of a heart attack a month short of his seventy-seventh birthday. After Mercer died, Paul Ellington, Mercer’s youngest son and executor of both his and the Duke Ellington estate, kept the Duke Ellington Orchestra alive. Mercedes Ellington is President of the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts.[5] Ellington’s eldest grandson Edward Kennedy Ellington II also is a musician and maintains a small salaried band known as the Duke Ellington Legacy, which frequently comprises the core of the big band operated by The Duke Ellington Center for the Arts.

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  • March, 11, 1919
  • USA
  • Washington D.C.


  • February, 08, 1996
  • Copenhagen, Denmark

Cause of Death

  • heart attack


  • Arlington National Cemetery
  • Arlington, Virginia
  • USA

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