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Essential Ellington

by Thomas Hibbs

Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, by Terry Teachout (Gotham, 496 pp., $30)

In a passage quoted by Terry Teachout in this new book, T. S. Eliot writes: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.” That is an apt description of the artistry of Duke Ellington, whose peculiar mode of composition typically involved weaving together solos from various members of his band into a cohesive whole.

Nor is that the only way in which Ellington took existing music and constructed something better and unique. Perhaps nowhere in 20th-century music do the varied strands — from classical to jazz and big band — come together in a more compelling way than in the compositions of Duke Ellington, whose career spanned six decades of that century. Exhibiting a mastery of all things Ellington and writing in always accessible and lively prose, Teachout narrates the unlikely story of an African American with no formal musical training who became one of the great composers of his era.

Like many who receive the label of genius, Ellington achieved success as the result not just of native ability but also of relentless work. He was known to compose at all hours and in every setting, frequently isolating himself in a hotel room to write for hours on end. If he did much of his composing in solitude, his mode of composition was thoroughly communal. He relied on the work of the soloists in his band for much of his material.

The unusual mode of composition led some to denigrate Ellington as a mere compiler, while others, more justly, criticized him for failing to acknowledge the contribution of co-writers and band members to his work. Perhaps nowhere is this injustice more evident than in his lengthy collaboration with Billy Strayhorn, the truly great composer who penned the Ellington band’s signature song, “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Only rarely and somewhat belatedly did Ellington acknowledge the extent of their collaboration. Strayhorn, who had a more natural sense of organic composition than Ellington and thus was a perfect complement to his more diffusive style, bristled privately, but only privately, at the lack of recognition. He was gay and thus felt the need to keep out of the public eye. One observer of their relationship offered a rather harsh assessment of Ellington’s treatment of Strayhorn, toward whom he was simultaneously “protective and controlling,” as he was toward the women in his life.

Ellington’s peculiar role made him a novelty in the music world. An early manager, Jack Mills, had the shrewd insight to see that Ellington should be marketed as both a bandleader and a composer. If Ellington profited from the talent of his band members, he was also burdened with the nearly impossible task of managing the individual performances and group cohesiveness of a large number of musicians, many of whom were addicted to alcohol and/or drugs or were simply lazy and moody. He once quipped that trying to lead such a group on a daily basis was akin to the work of a “scientist in a mental institution.” Ellington himself cut back on, and eventually gave up, alcohol because he saw the damage it wrought. As for the band, he had a penchant for punishing the unprepared by forcing them to perform lengthy solos.

For those who are not aficionados, music criticism can be tedious. Going to the opposite extreme in the hope of accessibility, some writers focus on the life and offer only glancing attention to the music. Or they simply fawn over their musical heroes. Teachout avoids all these potential vices of the music biographer. Descriptively rich, the book is not so much a scholarly tome as it is a delightful and entertaining read. Teachout writes with clarity and verve, presenting an astonishing amount of detail in a flowing narrative that brings to life not just Ellington and his music, but much of American culture of the period. And Ellington’s life is testimony to W. E. B. Du Bois’s claim that the problem of the American century was the “problem of the color line.”

An award-winning biographer of Louis Armstrong, Teachout here offers occasional comparisons of the two great African-American musicians. Along with a certain level of respect, Ellington harbored some resentment toward Armstrong for what he, like many other black performers, saw as Armstrong’s clownish presentation of himself before white audiences. Yet, beneath the surface contrast, Teachout detects deeper sympathies and similarities. Both embody the aspirational code of Booker T. Washington, the notion that it was primarily through effort and good will that the lot of African Americans would improve. Ellington was skeptical of civil-rights protests and somewhat dismissive of the March on Washington even as he held Martin Luther King Jr. in very high regard. Like Armstrong, although in quite different ways, Ellington was a bridge between black and white culture. The decision in the 1920s by CBS radio to broadcast nationally the Ellington band’s Cotton Club performances meant that black music was reaching a white audience for the first time.

Although he resisted the term “jazz” as a description of his music, he never objected to seeing it as African and American, even going so far as to embrace the seemingly disparaging comment of George Gershwin that Ellington’s band played “jungle music.” He movingly described what he called “the music of my race” as “the result of our transplantation to American soil, and . . . our reaction in the plantation days to the tyranny we endured. What we could not say openly we expressed in music. . . . The characteristic melancholy music of my race has been forged from the very white heat of our sorrows.”

For all his ability to capture the cultural context of Ellington’s work, it is the music itself to which Teachout repeatedly returns. Deft and balanced judgments, such as that concerning the “Second Sacred Concert,” which combines some of Ellington’s “best music with his worst lyrics,” characterize the entire book. I highly suggest listening to some select pieces as you read. You will appreciate the strengths and weaknesses, the range and the novelty of Ellington’s work, even as you gain a sense of the wide variety of Ellington’s composition, from the long, symphonic, and often dissonant works (such as “Black, Brown, and Beige,” a jazz symphony performed at Ellington’s famous Carnegie Hall appearance in 1943, and “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”) to the short, snappy dance numbers (such as “Ko-Ko” and “Cotton Tail”).

For all his aspiration to large-scale, symphonic music, that was not where Ellington’s greatness lay. “He was,” Teachout concludes, “like Paul Klee, Jorge Luis Borges, and Flannery 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.”

– Mr. Hibbs is the dean of the Honors College at Baylor University.

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