Duke Ellington’s “fans saw only what he wished them to see, and nothing more,” Terry Teachout explains in his new biography, Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington. To “Ellington’s own musicians, he was a riddle without an answer, an unknowable man who hid behind a high wall of ornate utterances and flowery compliments that grew higher as he grew older.” Teachout writes Duke as “an act of synthesis, a narrative biography,” one beautifully and compellingly written. Teachout talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the book.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Of Duke Ellington’s 1,700 tunes, do you have a favorite? Why?
LOPEZ: What do Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong have in common? Did one help you understand the other in any important ways?
TEACHOUT: They were both black jazz musicians born at the turn of the 20th century who were at one and the same time serious artists and popular entertainers — and who believed that you could do both. As far as their personalities went, they had nothing at all in common: Armstrong was open and direct, Ellington devious and opaque. Because I wrote first about Armstrong, I found that the contrasts between the two men helped clarify my developing ideas about Ellington’s character.
TEACHOUT: It’s the quintessential American music — homemade, improvisational, at once serious and accessible, and capable, as Whitman said, of “containing multitudes.” Just about every style of popular music that’s ever been played in this country, as well as some from other countries, has been absorbed into the stylistic melting pot that is jazz. What could be more American than that?
LOPEZ: Why didn’t Ellington consider his music jazz?
TEACHOUT: His problem was specifically with the word “jazz,” which for his generation (he was born in 1899) still had strongly sexual connotations. Ellington believed that such ostensibly vulgar labels would prevent jazz from ever being taken seriously by artists, critics, and scholars, so he tried to come up with a different way of referring to the music. At one point, the label he preferred was “Negro folk music.” Needless to say, it never caught on.
LOPEZ: Do the kids appreciate jazz (or good biographies!) as they ought to?
TEACHOUT: Well, some do, but my impression is that most people under the age of 30 or so — maybe 40 — know nothing whatsoever about jazz. That’s one of the reasons I wrote Duke and Pops: to try to show them what they’re missing.
LOPEZ: He lived in an incredibly different era, didn’t he? Your wife could cut your face with a razor and the truth could remain unknown, even as you appear in movies?
TEACHOUT: Sure enough. If Ellington were alive today, there’s no way that he could hope to keep his stormy love life out of the papers — and maybe he wouldn’t even want to, since the culture has changed so much since his death in 1974. In his lifetime, though, he thought it very, very important to preserve the appearance of respectability that he had internalized as a youthful member of the black bourgeoisie of Washington, D.C.
LOPEZ: Why do you quote W. Somerset Maugham on posterity and the “defects of greatness”?
TEACHOUT: Because too many of Ellington’s fans don’t want to know the truth about their hero, who was both a great man and a deeply flawed one. Me, I believe that the greatest tribute that a biographer can pay to a genius — and that’s what Ellington was — is to tell the truth about him, even when it hurts. Especially when it hurts. A man like Ellington is big enough to survive any revelation.
LOPEZ: I was struck by Ellington’s statement “I don’t need time, what I need is a deadline.” Are we a culture that could learn from that?
TEACHOUT: I wonder. To me it smacks of the journalist’s credo, which of course I myself have lived by throughout my entire professional life. Ellington felt much the same way. Without a deadline, he simply couldn’t focus his attention. Once he knew exactly when the curtain was going up, he got down to business.
LOPEZ: How could music be Ellington’s mistress, as the saying goes, when the man appears to have had so many mistresses? Did a lack of discipline hurt both his personal and professional life?
TEACHOUT: I don’t know whether that question is answerable. He was, after all, a hugely prolific composer who left behind a considerable number of masterpieces, so he must have been doing something right. But we can’t know how many more he might have written had he not diverted so much of his time and energy into the pursuit of women — though it’s also important to remember that he believed this pursuit to be musically inspirational.
LOPEZ: The desire for respectability isn’t necessarily a bad thing. How was it for Ellington?
TEACHOUT: That’s hard to say. It might well have kept him from dissipating his energies still further. More to the point, it definitely made it possible for the whole world to see him as an uplifting symbol of racial pride and aspiration, at a time when such symbols were immensely important to the black community. Things might have been different had his relentless sexual adventurism become common knowledge.
LOPEZ: Why did not getting the Pulitzer Prize mean so much to Ellington?
TEACHOUT: Precisely because it was for him yet another token of respectability, and of acceptance by the musical establishment — not just for his own music but for jazz in general. Hence he was both outraged and hurt when the Pulitzer board decided not to give him a special citation for achievement, which the classical-music judges had recommended. Of course, the members of the board were the ones who came off looking small. Ellington, by contrast, wisely kept his anger to himself. He even got off the ultimate comeback when a reporter asked him how he felt about being passed over: “Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young.” Bull’s-eye!
LOPEZ: What did religion mean to Ellington? You say he was “deadly serious” about his religious observance. Does that mesh with the way he lived?
TEACHOUT: He was devoutly religious, albeit in an idiosyncratic way. No, he didn’t hew to all of the Ten Commandments, to put it mildly, but there can be no possible doubt that he was a true believer. The three “sacred concerts” that he composed in his later years offer ample evidence of just how serious he was.
LOPEZ: What did he mean when he said “You can’t jive with the Almighty”?
TEACHOUT: He said that when he was at work on the First Sacred Concert, and I think what he meant was that if you write sacred music, you must give of your very best — nothing less is good enough for God.
LOPEZ: Was Ed Sullivan’s “sense of mass taste” truly “unerring?” What was his secret?
TEACHOUT: It was as close as you could get, and there was no secret to it: Quite simply, Sullivan had exactly the same middlebrow taste as his TV viewers. He liked what they liked — though he was famously shrewd about interspersing among his pop offerings just enough highbrow fare to keep things interesting. That explains why he kept inviting the Ellington band back on The Ed Sullivan Show again and again. Sure, Ellington was an entertainer, but he was also the classiest of class acts, and Sullivan knew the value of class.
LOPEZ: How was Duke Ellington like Flannery O’Connor?
TEACHOUT: I can’t put it better than I do in Duke, in which I say that he was, like O’Connor, “a disciplined lyric miniaturist who knew how to express the grandest of emotions on the smallest of scales, and who needed no more room in which to suggest his immortal longings.” (That’s actually my favorite sentence in the whole book.)
LOPEZ: One of the “peculiarities” of Duke Ellington’s career, you write, is that “he was a major composer but not an influential one.” Why is that? How does that happen?
TEACHOUT: He wrote great music, but his techniques were so intensely personal and unique unto himself that they were for all intents and purposes inimitable. Hence he didn’t influence anybody — all that other artists could do was play his songs in their own ways.
LOPEZ: Why do you tweet?
TEACHOUT: Partly to get the word out about my work, but mostly for fun. I find it diverting and relaxing. I’ve also made some real-world friends whom I first “met” on Twitter, which is a nice byproduct of tweeting.
LOPEZ: You tweeted a time or two about Lou Reed this past weekend. What is his legacy?
TEACHOUT: I’m not the right person to ask about that — I liked some of Reed’s music very much but never followed his career closely. I was and am far more interested in Steely Dan, the Band, the Beatles, and the Who, the four rock groups of my adolescence to whose music I continue to listen most attentively and with what looks by now to be permanent pleasure.
LOPEZ: What was most fun about writing about Duke Ellington? Hardest? And, finally, your tweetable takeaway from his life?
TEACHOUT: The best part of writing a book about an artist like Ellington is that you get to listen to his music all the time. The hardest part was finding ways to explain the technical aspect of his compositional method in language that is intelligible to the lay reader.
If you’re looking for a “tweetable takeaway,” here’s my second favorite sentence from Duke: “He talked not to explain himself but to conceal himself.” That’s Duke Ellington in a 56-character nutshell.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of NRO.