Historic Figures in Signage – Duke Ellington
“Just the first few notes of that song are enough to tell any music expert who is playing. It is like a musical sign. The sign says, “Listen! You are about to hear something by Duke Ellington’s orchestra.” It was always the first song his orchestra played.”
Shirley Griffith, American blues singer and guitarist, speaking about Duke Ellington’s song, Take the ‘A’ Train.
That musical sign Shirley Griffith describes in the quote above isn’t the only manner in which Duke Ellington created signs. While you may know Duke Ellington as an American Music composer, pianist and bandleader of jazz orchestras, he had an artistic talent for signage and his creative career was born of both making music and painting signs. The two talents are interwoven into the initial trajectory of his career.
As a youth, Duke Ellington’s creative interests were marked by both visual and audible art. His parents played the piano, and he began to take piano lessons at the age of seven. While in high school, he began to paint. Duke even received a scholarship to attend the Pratt Institute, a famous art school in New York City, which he turned down to pursue music.
His signage career took shape alongside his musical one. In 1917, he started a sign-painting business with a neighbor, Ewell Conway. Their sign company was located in Washington D.C. at 6th Street and T Street. That same year, Duke Ellington’s first band was formed – their first gig earned him $0.75.
Work as a sign painter helped to supplement his income; Duke Ellington played music at night and painted signs during the day. Sign painting also gave Duke the opportunity to pick up gigs. In his book Music is my Mistress, he wrote, “When customers came for posters to advertise a dance, I would ask them what they were doing about their music. When they wanted to hire a band, I would ask them who’s painting their signs.”
In addition to his talent as a painter, Duke’s charisma made him a natural salesperson. When meeting with important industry figures, he would offer his talents as both a sign painter and a musician. Duke believed an artist should have two mediums to play creatively off of one another.
When Duke’s musical career began to take off, he left the sign business behind to move to New York City. Although he left the signage business, Duke continued to paint and sketch throughout his life. The comic below by Justin Green appeared in Signs of the Times magazine:
Dr. Billy Taylor, a fellow musician who grew up in the same neighborhood as Duke Ellington, spoke of the signage that Duke Ellington and his business partner Ewell Conway would paint:
“When I was growing up on Flagler Place, as a kid there was a young fellow who lived around the corner from me… His father, Ewell Conway, had been a partner of Duke Ellington in the business of sign painting.
In those days instead of just pictures or other ways of expressing, they had lovely placards. They took up the whole front of the theater and they were hand-painted and they were in color and it was very attractive and Conway was a master of this. He was very good at this so he did all the theaters, Ewell Conway.
So I was very friendly with his son, Wallace, and so when Duke Ellington came to town I said, ‘Wallace, could you get your dad to introduce me to Duke Ellington? I really want to meet him.’ He said sure.”
Duke Ellington’s career spanned more than 50 years during which he received numerous awards including 14 Grammy Awards, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a special Pulitzer Prize for his lifetime contributions to music and culture.
At ASI, signage is our passion. We appreciate and encourage the talent of our craftspeople inside and outside of the office. From New York to New Orleans, ASI’s skilled staff has diverse creative outlets that enhance their signage knowledge with artistic exploration. We are proud that our multitalented employees across 30 U.S. locations enjoy finding creative solutions and can leverage outside talents and skills to bring fresh ideas to the table to solve our client’s signage needs.