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Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington

Terry Teachout

(Gotham; US: Oct 2013)

It’s almost 40 years now since music lost one of its true royals with the passing of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington in May 1974. The pre-eminent big-band composer/leader of the golden age of jazz was indeed part of American music royalty. Considered by many to be the greatest American composer of the last 50 years, the legendary bandleader has been the subject of several books on his brilliant and sustained career.


The author, playwright, drama critic and blogger Terry Teachout, who tackled another musical icon with his book Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, has recently published Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, attempting to unravel some of the Ellington mystique. Teachout does a first rate job of chronologically documenting Ellington’s musical arc. He tracks his early beginnings in Washington D.C. fronting his first group The Washingtonians, through his career leading the Ellington orchestra, a gig that would span a half a century until his death. The author evaluates Ellington’s genius; a combination of an unfailing ear, a superb sense of swing and an inherent ability to write music that would accentuate the unique voicings of the wonderful instrumentalists he had in his band.


Teachout explains the maestro’s self-taught method of composing; as much a study in human temperament as it was a discerning assembly of instrumentation. His method created a unique sound that would come to be known as “The Ellington Effect”. Encompassing lusty miniature masterpieces like “Koko” and “The Mooch” to lengthier, more ambitious works like “Creole Rhapsody” “Black, Brown and Beige” and his Sacred Concerts, the Ellington Effect was omnipresent and the author gives a disciplined accounting of the genesis of his many recordings.


The book’s opening quotations, W. Somerset Maughn’s “There is one very good thing to be said of posterity, and that is that it turns a blind eye on the defects of greatness.” And Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “We wear the mask that grins and lies.” leave little doubt as to what to expect from the author’s version of Ellington’s biography. Acknowledging his musical genius, the narrative nevertheless weaves a constant theme of a man who was enigmatic; a man incapable of being emotionally available to even his closest of intimates; a man behind a mask, who used his self- created image to successfully hide his very human flaws and bolster his persona. Utilizing an extensively researched bibliography, that seemingly covers all the previously published writings, oral histories and articles written on the man, this biography by the author’s own admission “...is not so much a work of scholarship as an act of synthesis, a narrative biography based on the work of academic scholars and other researchers…”


Teachout is a fine writer who creates a natural rhythm with his prose, a pulse that propels the book for most of its 365, making it an interesting read even for those who have a cursory interest in Ellington’s music. The author’s own experience as a jazz bassist bolsters his narrative as he describes the more technical aspects of Ellington’s discography. But if there is a flaw in the author’s analysis, it’s his myopic tendency to judge Ellington’s longer works by their lack of adherence to a predetermined classic form, as Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune has duly noted. Given Ellington’s lack of formal conservatory training, his valiant attempt to orchestrate longer form pieces in his own unorthodox way should be applauded not denigrated, as Teachout seems bent on doing.


The author tries to systematically understand Duke through observation of his baffling inconsistencies. Teachout exposes Ellington as a great procrastinator who, despite this proclivity, remained a prodigious composer with an astounding 1,700 compositions to his credit. The author paints the portrait of a demanding bandleader who spared no expense to hire the best musicians available. Yet when their behavior proved to be unsatisfactory, Ellington’s inherent abhorrence of confrontation would not permit him to fire anyone. Instead, he preferred to find a gentile way to nudge the offending person into leaving voluntarily. His dealing with the temperamental bassist Charles Mingus, suggesting that he should resign after an altercation with trombonist Juan Tizol, was a in point.


The author speaks to Ellington’s religious beliefs; he was a private worshiper who purportedly studied the Bible daily and considered the creation of sacred music a solemn task once saying,  “You can jive with secular music, but you can’t jive with the Almighty.” And yet as the author notes, this abiding faith in God did not harness the composer’s relentless womanizing. Faith also took a back seat to his comically superstitious nature as Teachout reveals Ellington refused to buy people shoes or socks, as he believed it would cause them to leave him.


Duke is portrayed as almost kleptomaniacal throughout his career, often pilfering melodic phrases or entire passages from his bandmates. He is found repackaging these ideas into his own compositions, giving the originator no credit and in some cases no or only token compensation. The author offers “Mood Indigo”, “Cotton Tail” and “Sophisticated Lady” as prime examples of compositions that had their genesis in songs or fragments created by others. Ellington’s “borrowing” was depicted so prevalently that jazz writer Marc Myers questioned the author about this theme. Was Ellington really just a “brilliant recycler?” Teachout accepts this characterization while acknowledging Ellington as a prolific composer in his own right. This duality remains a mysterious, unanswered question about the nature of Ellington’s creativity, and the author tries to walk a tightrope here. But the story is in the telling and Teachout is perhaps too willing to choose to tell it from the perspective of the jilted collaborators.


If, as longtime Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn once said, the orchestra was Duke’s instrument, than its survival was his paramount concern. If that meant taking the lion’s share of credit and royalties for what were clearly the vital contributions of others, then so be it. It’s likely he considered it a small price to pay for the greater good. Teachout avoids the obvious questions, Was the band’s survival the motive behind Ellington’s seemingly unflinching ability to take full credit for his collaborators work? or did his ego just overrule any sense of fair play?


In a Swedish interview, Duke claimed that most of the earnings made by the band went to his musicians and related band expenses. Clearly the arrangement afforded him a relatively lavish lifestyle, but he always claimed that his real compensation was hearing them play his music. Was this just good PR or did he believe the ends justified the means? This question is unfortunately never really explored.


Teachout does offer the narcissistic side of the Ellington persona; his insatiable need to be accepted as a true artist, to play Carnegie Hall, to write a long symphonic piece on par with the classics, to never cede top billing. The author explains Ellington’s lifelong ambition to achieve the trappings of that acceptance: the cover of Time magazine, the Pulitzer Prize, the Medal of Freedom, a Grammy, a Tony or an Oscar.


Any biography of Ellington must include his relationship with his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn. The well-documented, apparent exploitation of Strayhorn is further explored in this book. Strayhorn is again depicted as being the talented but fragile, alcohol-driven victim of Ellington’s dominant persona. Living in the master’s shadow, Strayhorn was driven to self-doubt, bitterness and ultimately came to an early demise.


The truth is much more complicated, however, and Teachout, to his credit, does a fair job of painting the symbiotic nature of this relationship. Posthumously, the brilliance of Strayhorn’s contribution to the canon and to the success of the Ellington Band is rightfully etched in stone. But what is sometimes forgotten is that Strayhorn’s relative anonymity, during his tenure with Ellington, offered him protection and comfort from the more parochial aspects of society. Duke provided Strayhorn economic security, artistic freedom and a familial base, a combination of benefits that few openly gay people enjoyed in that era.


Teachout paints Ellington as a manifest womanizer who found the fairer sex both a source of inspiration and mistrust. This mistrust never quelled Ellington’s sex drive or his enduring sex appeal, which did not diminish with age. We are told that he continued to receive unsolicited invitations from admiring ladies to the end of his life.


Teachout affirms that in a world still dominated by white society, Ellington’s middle class background, a part of what sociologist E. Franklin Frazier called the “Black Bourgeoisie”, nurtured in him a desire to raise the status of his race and to gain mainstream acceptability. It may well be this longing to achieve acceptance and respectability brought about the genesis of what the author views as the maestro’s mask. The author once explained candidly in an interview that what partially made Ellington publically successful was “... he was presentable—beautifully dressed, gorgeously spoken—and that made him socially acceptable to whites who looked askance at less polished black artists.”


Polished, gentile and well spoken with a manner of suave sophistication, Duke cultivated this image throughout his life. This persona was in no small way marketed by his shrewd one-time manager Irving Mills to great success. The author points out how this image was in stark contrast to the one created by his contemporary, Louis Armstrong.


An equally talented musical genius, Armstrong’s cross audience appeal was undeniably achieved through immense talent, but he was also perceived by many of his race as a shuffling, smiling, cow-towing Uncle Tom, a lovable caricature that many felt did not elevate the image of his people. Duke’s comment made about Armstrong at the time of his death was telling in its glaring absence of any praise “He was poor, died rich and never hurt anyone on the way.”


The book has a wonderful recommended discography that highlights some of Ellington’s major musical achievements. Despite Teachout’s exhaustive effort, he admits that we will probably never really get a clear picture of the man’s inner essence and concludes that Duke wanted it that way.


Fortunately, the Ellington legacy lives on. Modern day orchestrators and composers of large ensembles are all part of the Ellington lineage. Institutions like Jazz at Lincoln Center and The Carnegie Hall Weil School of Music feature retrospectives that allow young talented composers and orchestrators to revisit the music and deconstruct the nuances buried in Ellington’s work.


Despite lingering unanswered questions, Teachout’s book is a worthy read. It successfully brings Duke Ellington and his music back into the public consciousness, reaffirming the man’s artistic genius while telling a fascinating story.

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