Jimmy Durante was born New York City. He dropped out of school in eighth-grade to play ragtime piano.
In his youth Durante worked as pianist and entertainer in New York city, nickmaned "Ragtime Jimmy". About 1917 he joined one of the first jazz bands in New York, The Original New Orleans Jazz Band (all other musicians were from New Orleans). Durante's outgoing personality and ability to "sell" a number to the audience started attracting greater attention, and by 1920 the band was renamed Jimmy Durante's Jazz Band.
In the mid 1920s he became a star on Vaudeville and radio with his music & comedy trio Clayton Jackson & Durante (with Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson); despite third billing Durante was the star of the act.
He had big hit in 1934 with his composition Inka Dinka Do, a novelty number he sung and played piano on, and which became his signature song.
In 1935 he starred in Billy Rose's spectacle, "Jumbo." In the show, a policeman stops him while leading a live elephant and asks "What are you doing with that elephant?" Durante stopped the show by saying "Elephant? What elephant?"
He was featured in a series of comedy motion pictures paired with Buster Keaton.