Facial Hair Friday: Duke Ellington

April is Jazz Appreciation Month, and today’s Facial Hair Friday honors Washington, DC’s very own mustachioed jazz man: Duke Ellington. 

Born Edward Kennedy Ellington on April 29, 1899, in Washington, DC, Duke Ellington was the greatest jazz composer, pianist, and bandleader of his time. His career spanned more than six decades during which he composed more than 3,000 songs. 

On April 29, 1969, his 70th birthday, Ellington received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Richard Nixon. Before the ceremony, Nixon played Happy Birthday to Ellington on the Steinway piano in the East Room of the White House.

Duke Ellington received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Richard Nixon; the celebration featured music by numerous jazz legends, 4/29/1969. (National Archives Identifier 194289)

In his remarks, Nixon acknowledged Ellington’s father, James Edward Ellington, who had worked as a part-time butler at the White House during the Harding administration.

Nixon then said, “I, and many others here, have been guests at state dinners. I have been here when an emperor has been toasted. I have been here when we have raised our glasses to a king, to a queen, to presidents, and to prime ministers. But in studying the history of all of the great dinners held in this room, never before has a Duke been toasted. So tonight I ask you all to rise and join me in raising our glasses to the greatest Duke of them all, Duke Ellington.”

After the program and ceremony, guests, who included Cab Calloway, Billy Eckstine, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman, and many others, continued an impromptu jazz session until 2:15 a.m. At one point Ellington himself took to the keys improvising a tune called “Pat” in honor of First Lady Pat Nixon. 

Today, Ellington is well remembered in the District of Columbia. The Duke Ellington School of the Arts, established in 1974—the year Ellington passed away—is a DC public high school dedicated to promoting arts education. Also in 1974 the Calvert Street Bridge over Rock Creek in Washington, DC, was renamed the Duke Ellington Bridge. 

In 2009, the U.S. Mint, as part of the America the Beautiful Quarters Program, issued the District of Columbia coin with Duke Ellington featured on it. On the coin, Ellington (with mustache) is seated at a piano holding sheet music above the inscription of DC’s motto “Justice for All.” This made him the first African American to appear alone on a circulating U.S. coin.

Read the program from the April 29, 1969, ceremony at the White House in the National Archives Catalog.

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