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Duke Ellington, Sign Painter

Honoring Black History Month
Special Thanks to Poblocki Sign Company for Raising Awareness of this Story

Duke Ellington was one of the greatest jazz composers of his time. His career spanned more than 50 years – most of the documented history of jazz – during which he earned 14 Grammy awards, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1966), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1969), and a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his lifetime contributions to music and culture (1999).

But did you know that he also had an artistic talent for signage? In 1917, he started a sign-painting business with a neighbor and fellow musician, Ewell Conway. Their sign company was located in Washington D.C. at 6th Street and T Street.

In addition to his success as a sign painter, Duke’s personality made him a great salesperson. When he would meet with figures key to his success, he always offered his services as both as a sign painter and a musician. 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.”  

Eventually, Duke’s musical career took off, and he chose to leave the sign business behind and move to New York City.  The comic below by Justin Green appeared in Signs of the Times magazine, illustrating the event.