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?
TERRY TEACHOUT: In fact, Ellington didn’t write 1,700 “tunes.” He wrote 1,700 compositions, of which some are tunes — that is, pop songs — and others purely instrumental pieces that vary widely in size and scope. Most of the best ones are what I call “three-minute masterpieces” that run for roughly the length of one side of a 78-r.p.m. record. Of those, my favorite is “Ko-Ko,” a hard-swinging, harmonically daring minor-key blues written and recorded in 1940. Of the songs, I especially like “Rocks in My Bed.”
: 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.
LOPEZ: What is it that you find so special about jazz — worth your time writing expansive biographies on major players in its history?
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.