New Duke Ellington Bio Offers New Insights Into The Jazz Giant

Duke Ellington was — in addition to being a genius and a charmer — something of a B.S. artist. That's one of the character traits that comes through in Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, the fast-moving, well-balanced and astonishing new biography by Terry Teachout. Ellington was suave and debonair, a master of the orotund phrase, with a regal delivery and demeanor that fit his name. He was, as Teachout makes plain, a musical visionary, but Ellington was also a complicated and unknowable character, one who didn't reveal his true self to many, and whose creative skills seemed to depend, in part, on surrounding himself with talented collaborators and sidemen.

Ellington is a giant of jazz and American music. But his career was nagged by his inconsistent efforts to create coherent large-scale works, a challenge that he and others set, it seems, as a way of burnishing the respectability of black music in America. In addition to talking up pieces that he perhaps hadn't finished or even started, Ellington, who had a background in visual arts, was fond of describing and naming his works by using evocative stories about the scenes and subjects that allegedly inspired their composition.

"[H]e was an impressionist, an artist who dealt not in ideas but images," writes Teachout.

The only problem was that, as Teachout repeatedly makes plain, in many cases the music had already been written, and sometimes recorded, often under a different name with no reference to the fanciful story — whether it be the supposed mundane theme of "Harlem Air Shaft," the story of a tired laborer walking home after a day's work for 'East St. Louis Toodle-O," or the alleged Shakespearean underpinnings of the Such Sweet Thunder suite. This didn't diminish the music, necessarily, which in some cases was fantastic, but it did add to the BS factor.

Complicating matters, Ellington was known for poaching bits of riffs or tunes from some of his sidemen — warm-up phrases, solo lines, opening statements — and using them for his own compositions, sometimes without adequate compensation or credit, what Teachout calls his "magpielike borrowings." Even for those who knew something about this tendency, it is a little unsettling to learn that Ellington didn't write the core of, say, "Sophisticated Lady" or "Creole Love Call" or even "Mood Indigo."

One could make the case that, had he been alive and working in the 21st century, Ellington would have applied his considerable self-promotional skills to perhaps more accurately explain his work in terms of the mash-up culture that we've all grown so familiar with, one where bits and snippets are sampled and reordered and recontextualized in a post-modern patchwork. Today, his actual compositional style might more naturally had that high-art veneer that he seems to have craved. Perhaps this is just one more facet of his genius.

Teachout is a drama critic for the Wall Street Journal. He's also the author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, part of which he turned into the play Satchmo at the Waldorf. He's also written the librettos for operas, and he's a musician as well. He knows both about musical analysis, about reporting, and about moving a story along at a lively pace, all of which he does here.

Teachout covers Ellington's birth and youth in turn-of-the-century Washington DC. He suggests that ideas of class and racial dignity in his family were at the core of Ellington's character. Teachout deftly handles the emerging and divergent musical styles of the era — the ways in which ragtime fed into New Orleans brass bands, the evolution of stride piano and jazz. He chronicles Ellington's early years as a performer, his arrival in New York City, his partnership with career-shaping manager Irving Mills, his gig at the Cotton Club, and the steady accumulation of important instrumentalists like Bubber Miley, Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Jimmy Blanton, Ben Webster and others whose names are associated with the Ellington Orchestra. Teachout bores down into the mechanics of Ellington's pinnacle achievements of the late 1930s and early 1940s, when works such as "Koko," "Jack the Bear" "Pitter Panther Patter," "Dusk" and many others were composed and recorded. Ellington's use of the tonal colors of his orchestra, the patterned section playing, the expressive smears and inspired solos, the subtle pairing of muted brass with sombre reeds, the peculiar modulations, advanced chromatic — almost atonal — writing that he arrived at by pushing the blues to its modernist extreme: Teachout explores it all.

Same with the crucial and complicated role of long-time Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn — who wrote many of the great tunes associated with the orchestra, like "Take the A Train," "Day Dream," "Chelsea Bridge" and many more, in addition to orchestrating, arranging and composing with varying degrees of credit.

There are a few places where Teachout seems, to my mind, to overstress some of his critiques of Ellington, repeatedly claiming that the composer had trouble writing a hummable tune — something I doubt, and something it's not clear was ever an actual goal. And he says that Ellington didn't have a sense of horizontal melody because he was a piano player, in the habit of visualizing and thinking in terms of vertical harmonies. Teachout also at times seems to expect a degree of formal unity from Ellington's pieces that may not have ever been the intended goal of the composer. But Teachout's detailed analysis and appraisals of the bulk of Ellington's recorded output — a vast amount of music — is generally on the money. Ellington buffs will be rushing back to their record collections to track down versions of tunes like "Buffet Flat," "Serenade to Sweden," "The Clothed Woman" and "Rude Interlude" to listen for some of the details Teachout points out.

Beyond the music, Teachout tells a snappy story, about the interpersonal dramas in the Ellington organization, a mixed gang made up of gamblers, drinkers, brawlers, sensitive geniuses, pious church-goers, junkies and stoics. He conveys the ways in which Ellington's need to be surrounded by his orchestra, and to be always playing in order to be able to afford that luxury, served in a way to keep Duke too busy to ever really be able to dig in to any one project. Ellington was a famous procrastinator. And without tougher figures to help, he let his orchestra eventually grow slouchy, with different members showing up late for gigs, or even nodding off in a heroin stupor on the bandstand. Other revelations involve Ellington's long-term estrangement from his wife Edna, who he wed in 1918 and remained legally married to until his death in 1974, despite having numerous women on the side, two of which were long-term affairs. The section about how and when Duke Ellington received the prominent slash-like scar across his left cheek makes for a story with a racy sizzle.

Teachout draws on the previous biographies — Barry Ulanov's Duke Ellington from 1946, Mark Tucker's Ellington: The Early Years from 1993, John Edward Hasse's Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington also from 1993 and others — as well as from Ellington's 1973 memoir Music Is My Mistress, and from scores of other books and sources. (There are about 100 pages of appendixes, notes and bibliography.) Teachout writes that he had to "scrub away the sugar" of the stories that Ellington told about certain parts of his life. And he's done so without reducing or chipping away at Duke Ellington's monumental achievements and stature. Teachout didn't intent to write a scholarly bio, but Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington will provide new insights for even the most seasoned Ellington buff. It will direct longtime fans and newcomers back to the records, which is a fitting result for a story about a man whose life was his music.


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