Edward Kennedy Ellington—one of the most significant figures in jazz history—was born in 1899. His father, a White House butler, intended young Edward to become an artist from the beginning of his life. He began studying piano at age seven—influenced by the prevailing ragtime style—and made his professional debut in 1916, aged seventeen. Ellington was already known as Duke for his sartorial elegance and immaculate appearance when he first came to New York in 1922. He found no success then but on the advice of jazz legend Fats Waller, he moved to Manhattan in 1923 with his Washington band. Between 1923–27, he transformed this small ensemble into a full orchestra whose first recordings proved startlingly original.
From 1927–1932, Ellington and his orchestra, performing regularly at the Cotton Club in Harlem, shared leadership with Louis Armstrong of the jazz world. Mood Indigo, released in 1930, received worldwide acclaim, further establishing Ellington's fame. The years 1932–1942 were Ellington's most creative; his enlarged band toured the United States and Europe. In 1939 Billy Strayhorn began his life-long collaboration with Duke, commencing a professional and personal relationship that produced some of the finest music imaginable. Strayhorn, openly homosexual, was taken into the Ellington apartment in Harlem and lived there as family. (Indeed, the genesis for "Take the A Train" were came from Ellington's travel directions to Strayhorn.) The unparalleled intimacy between Duke—a notorious womanizer—and Billy fueled speculation that there was a sexual component to their many-faceted, prodigious partnership.