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.