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Author Terry Teachout Talks About His New Duke Ellington Bio

Teachout's new book, 'Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington,' was released in October

By John Adamian

11:35 AM EST, November 26, 2013

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Terry Teachout lives in New York City, but spends a chunk of every year in Connecticut, as he told the Advocate during a recent phone interview from Washington DC, where Teachout was doing press for his new book and preparing to review some of the fall theater season.

"My wife and I spend part of our time in a little place in Storrs, out in the woods somewhere. I love it out there," says Teachout.

The author is active on Twitter, and his followers can keep up on his coming and goings and his many writing projects, whether they be reviews, plays, operas or books. When asked how he maintains such an intense and productive schedule, Teachout says it's just his nature.

"My life has always been like this," says Teachout. "I was good at multi-tasking before the word existed. I seem to have a knack for putting aside what I was doing 10 minutes ago."

That ability seems to be what allowed him to jump into the Ellington bio, back in 2009 before his last book had even come out. While driving in the car with his wife and listening to some Ellington.

"It really was like somebody had hit me on the head. I thought 'Duke!'" He pulled over and called his agent to pitch the idea. It's not as if he'd set out on a course of tackling the giants of jazz, he says.

"There isn't any other jazz musician I would have wanted to do."

But Duke Ellington was perhaps ready for another bio. New information, new scholarship, and new technology meant it was good timing.

"It's a matter of course that the lives of great men need to be re-written every 20 years or so," says Teachout. "He is one of the half dozen greatest figures in American music."

Digging in to the subject, with "a bigger shovel," Teachout came up with some good finds, particularly about Ellington's relationship with women.

"There's a lot of new material, but it's not like I had unique access to any of it," he says. "There was source material that nobody else had consulted."

The hunt for the truth, whatever that was, guided Teachout. With regard to a subject like Ellington, someone who concealed more than he revealed perhaps, a certain resolve was required.

"I believe very strongly that the responsibility for tact ends at the edge of the grave," says Teachout in reference to any concerns of unearthing unseemly details about such a beloved figure.

"If the subject was a great man, and Ellington was a great man without question, he won't be diminished by telling the truth," says Teachout.

The personal details aren't played up for tabloid appeal. "It's not salacious," he says. "It's just honest."

When asked if he came to like Ellington the man after writing the book, Teachout answers by contrasting Duke Ellington with Louis Armstrong, the subject of his last book before this one.

"Of course I like Armstrong more," he says. "He was a more likeable person."

In part that's because Ellington worked to "conceal himself."

"The better you get to know Armstrong, the closer you grow to him, because he was knowable as a person. Ellington is a very different kind of personality."

I wondered what questions Teachout might have liked to have asked Ellington, had he gotten the chance, and the notion of Ellington's masks colored his response.

"I'd know better than to think he'd answer," he says. "He was not a man who told you anything he didn't want you to hear."

Teachout says he'd like to know more about Ellington's relationships with certain women, about his feelings for people like Billy Strayhorn and Ellington's son Mercer.

"I know perfectly well that I wouldn't get anywhere," says Teachout. "I don't have any illusions about that. You can only see him through the eyes of the people who knew him."