Leadership Lessons from the “Duke”




Duke Ellington with his band in Hollywood, Calif., 1937. [Photo from Frank Driggs—Frank Driggs Collection]

“He [Duke Ellington] could masterfully psyche you into doing whatever he wanted you to do.”Clark Terry

A leader’s job is to construct an environment that brings out the best in their people. True leaders work with, not against, the natural laws of how the world and people work. The space they create provides support, incentivizes for appropriate behaviors and challenges people to grow on their own.

Duke Ellington, the father of jazz composition, understood how the world really works.

For fifty years the “Duke” led one of the most successful jazz big bands. Ellington gathered more than a dozen Grammy’s throughout his lifetime and just about every other music award. When the music business failed to support other big bands, Ellington’s orchestra thrived.

His leadership is no different than any intelligent fanatic led business organization. Let’s learn some of his lessons.

Understand Your People

Duke understood his musicians. Unlike other jazz arrangers of the time, Duke wrote parts specifically to match his musicians’ strengths and their unique voices (see quote below). This led many of his musicians, many of them virtuoso’s on their instruments, to stay loyal to the Duke Ellington orchestra; most of his musicians would stay in the band for decades.
Each one of Ellington’s musicians had a highly individual sound. So, even when they were not playing solos, their own unique way of sounding each pitch was considered before giving them a particular part to play. For example, if a chord was scored for three trumpets, Ellington remembered the particular tone quality that each of his trumpeters ordinarily produced for each note in that chord, and he distributed the parts of the chord to them to create the overall color he wanted that chord to have in his arrangement. In addition, sometimes he would have one trumpeter use a mute, another with no mute, and a third player sound his note with an odd tone quality that only he was able to extract from the trumpet. Ellington scored this way for saxes and trombones, too. This is one reason that performances of Ellington’s arrangements never sound like Ellington’s band when they are played by other musicians. – Mark Gridley, Jazz Styles
Cootie Williams, one of Duke’s trumpeters who joined in 1929, was one such example. Cootie was unique as he used a plunger to mute the end of his horn to create different musical effects and tones (listen). Instead of forcing Cootie to drop the plunger, since it was unusual, Ellington weaved muted trumpet parts throughout his tunes for Williams. Cootie could be Cootie which built a fierce loyalty and led him to stay with the band until 1940. Cootie rejoined in 1962 for another 12 years.

Tolerance Pays

“When you worked with him you felt good. Even the musicians who didn’t quite remember perhaps having arguments with him. But you know if they left him, they’d always come back because once you work with Duke you are never the same after that.”Alice Babs (Vocalist)

Often the most skilled, intelligent workers have quirks. Great leaders can overlook their sometimes rude and unpredictable behavior. That tolerance can pay large dividends.

Duke Ellington had to live with tardy, alcoholic and moody characters. Verbal conflicts were not surprising. Trombonist Juan Tizol often was playing tricks on Duke and other band members with itching powder and other gags (discussed here).

These didn’t bother Ellington. Duke thought it was worth it for the great music they could produce, “I live for nights that this band is great. I don’t think about the nights like what you’re worrying about. If you pay attention to these people, they will drive you crazy. They’re not going to drive me crazy.”

Build Up Your Team

Ellington’s leadership didn’t stop there. He created a supportive environment that allowed his musicians to own the music and develop individually.

Trumpeter Clark Terry recalled an example of the support he received. One day, Ellington asked Clark to play like the trumpeter Buddy Bolden:

Clark said, ‘Maestro, I don’t know who the hell Buddy Bolden is!’ Duke said, ‘Oh sure, you know Buddy Bolden. Buddy Bolden was suave, handsome, and a debonair cat who the ladies loved. Aw, he was so fantastic! He was fabulous! He was always sought after. He had the biggest, fattest trumpet sound in town. He bent notes to the nth degree. He used to tune up in New Orleans and break glasses in Algiers! … As a matter of fact, you are Buddy Bolden!’


Great leaders are first givers. Tony Bennett reminisced shortly after Duke’s passing in 1974 one story of Ellington. The story encapsulated the type of human being Duke was to everyone.
I had separated from my first wife and I was by myself in a hotel room on Christmas eve. I was very, very lonely… All of a sudden here I was by myself feeling very low and he sent over a whole chorus. In the hotel hallway I could hear this choir singing and I opened the door. There they were all different nationalities: Chinese, White, Colored, everybody and they were all smiling at me. This was the way Duke was. I think what he really knew was that if we look at life in the right perspective that there really are miracles that do happen. Like the ones you hear in Catholicism. I think he knew that there were miracles if you did things for other people rather than for yourself.


Thankfully everything that Duke Ellington did as a leader transcends music.

  • Understanding people is absolutely necessary in business or any endeavor. By understanding employees, customers, suppliers, local communities and shareholders you have fewer chances to make mistakes. Trust will also be built with those stakeholders. Trust is such a rare commodity.
  • The more diverse a group of talented individuals, the more chances for internal conflicts. But it is all worth it in the long term.
  • Employees can be built up or beaten down. Most choose the latter instead of the former. When you build up your team you support them to develop on their own accord.
  • Reciprocity is a strong force in any social relationship. Giving pays in many ways.

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Other Resources:
Duke Ellington Model Leadership

Reminiscing in Tempo – Tony Bennett

Duke Ellington: The Bandleader, part 1

Duke Ellington: The Composer Pt. 2

Leaders are paid to develop the best talent