Introduction to Duke Ellington Discography

Duke Ellington (1899-1974) is often referred to as America's greatest composer. Whether or not that is true, there is no doubt that Ellington is the greatest of all recording artists. Between 1926 and 1973 he recorded perhaps a hundred CDs worth of studio sessions, and most of them are outstanding. In addition, there are hundreds of CDs worth of live recordings, and many of those are outstanding. The sheer volume of his output, along with its frequent spectacular quality, places him above all other recording artists.

I have compiled a list of the best Ellington records here.

Ellington was an excellent pianist, and he plays piano on the majority of his recordings. But that is seldom the true reason why his recordings were as great as they were. He was primarily known as a bandleader, and his big band orchestra typically had many of the best black jazz musicians around. Ellington (along with collaborators, the most important of whom was Billy Strayhorn) composed and arranged most of the music that his orchestra played.

Most outstanding recording artists have a relatively brief period of greatness, followed by many years of declining or patchy quality. For example, the rock group The Rolling Stones were at their best between 1964 and 1972, and Elvis Presley faded after 1960 aside from a 1968 to 1970 comeback. What is special about Duke Ellington is that his orchestra recordings are highly consistent, despite a voluminous output and the passage of decades.

The discography presented here is incomplete. It only represents those recordings that I have acquired. The best discography is The New Desor (Duke Ellington story on records), published in Italy in 1999 by Giovanni Volonte. This remarkable reference even breaks down the solos for each recording. It is costly and difficult to acquire a copy. Only 500 were printed.

The next best discography in print is by W.E. Timner, the fifth edition of "Ellingtonia." This is more reasonably priced, and more available, but has little information on issued LPs, CDs, and DVDs.

Online discography is now provided in depth by the website http://ellingtonia.com. Another good discography website is http://depanorama.net.
The recordings I have listed are organized chronologically. The recordings are linked to their source (e.g., CD, DVD, LP, VHS) where available. Most recordings have appeared on more than one source. In that event, I list only the source that (in my opinion) has the best sound quality. I have tried to avoid sources that reprocess the sound to eliminate surface noise or to create an echo or stereo effect. I also try to avoid recordings that have high note distortion.

In other cases, highs have been dampened slightly to reduce surface noise. Collectors tend to prefer noisy recordings that retain the highs, but in several cases, I have chosen the recording with quiet surface noise and slightly dampened highs. I have tried to avoid recordings with severely dampened highs.

I have graded some of the recordings. These grades use a 0 to 100 scale and are entirely my personal opinion, which is based upon tens of thousands of hours spent grading audio and visual media. The sound quality of the recording ideally should not affect the grade, since the performance is more important than its capture. I have excluded the detrimental patter of radio announcers, actors, and audience dialogue from the grades.