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Ellington was also inspired by his first encounters with stride pianists James P. Later in New York he took advice from Will Marion Cook, Fats Waller, and Sidney Bechet.

Ellington built his music business through his day job: when a customer asked him to make a sign for a dance or party, he would ask if they had musical entertainment; if not, Ellington would offer to play for the occasion. Ellington moved out of his parents' home and bought his own as he became a successful pianist. area and into Virginia for private society balls and embassy parties.

In the summer of 1914, while working as a soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Café, Ellington wrote his first composition, "Soda Fountain Rag" (also known as the "Poodle Dog Rag").

He created the piece by ear, as he had not yet learned to read and write music.

At first, he played in other ensembles, and in late 1917 formed his first group, "The Duke's Serenaders" ("Colored Syncopators", his telephone directory advertising proclaimed). The band included childhood friend Otto Hardwick, who began playing the string bass, then moved to C-melody sax and finally settled on alto saxophone; Arthur Whetsol on trumpet; Elmer Snowden on banjo; and Sonny Greer on drums.

The band thrived, performing for both African-American and white audiences, a rarity in the segregated society of the day.

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