The intent of this book is clear from the first page: to knock a revered jazz legend off his pedestal and drag him through as much mud as possible. Only the author can explain his motivation. Was it simply to generate controversy and publicity?
Here are Mr. Ellington’s chief offenses, as laid out in the Prologue: 1.) he was a terrible procrastinator, always frantically working at the last minute to complete charts for new compositions--this has been well known for quite some time; 2.) he was a sex-crazed serial adulterer--he abandoned his wife, Edna, but refused to grant her a divorce while shacking up with numerous other women; 3.) he stole musical ideas from others and claimed them as his own creations; 4.) his whole life was a facade, with the real man always hidden from the public’s view; 5.) he only produced a very few worthwhile, true extended works, many being “shapeless suites”; 6.) he was “a somewhat better than average stride pianist” [to be fair, the author credits him later in the book with some brilliant solo performances]; 7.) he employed a relentless public relations apparatus to hype his accomplishments and only present to the world the face he wanted perceived--so shouldn’t he be credited with being a celebrity ahead of his time?
Chapter 1: The author attempts to put the black community of dawn-of-20th-Century Washington, DC on a psychoanalyst’s couch. He appears obsessed with a battle for status within this community based on skin tone; this will be a recurring theme throughout the book. Teachout says Duke benefited from his relatively light coloration (“coffee with cream”)--as if he had a choice of how much melanin his skin contained! Page 31: “Instead of worrying about getting lynched, Duke played with his friends, read Sherlock Holmes and Horatio Alger, sang hymns in church...” Light-skinned black folk (my terminology; the author declines to use “African-American” at all) didn’t get lynched, Mr. Teachout? And I guess you’ve never seen the footage of mass KKK marches through the streets of the nation’s capital in early 20th Century? Duke even gets slammed for saying only nice things about his parents, and admitting that they spoiled him.
Chapter 5: On page 101 Teachout says Ellington “emasculated” his own father by supplanting him as the family’s chief breadwinner. He “...forced [son Mercer] to wear his hair in girlish braids for much of his childhood” to “keep [him] dependent.” From the same page: “All he wanted, in other words, was to have everybody in the palm of his hand, and at the age of thirty-one, he got it.” On page 112 we’re told that Duke was severely challenged in writing memorable, tuneful melodies. At that point, a question sprang instantly into my head: so, I suppose “Sophisticated Lady” is lame? Right on cue, Teachout has a reply: that song was purloined from themes developed by Otto ‘Toby’ Hardwick and Lawrence Brown. This follows exposition on how tunes were frequently worked out collaboratively in rehearsals, at least in the early years. Hardwick and Brown were paid for their contributions and thereafter only Ellington got official credit for composition. But Teachout has earlier explained that this was Duke’s system, so to accept the honor of being in the band was to accept this situation. Also acknowledged was the fact that Duke kept his musicians securely employed for years (some stayed for decades, of course), including through the Great Depression. And let the world note that in his own book, MUSIC IS MY MISTRESS (not a proper autobiography but more a collection of reminiscences about phases of his career and the people he knew and worked with), Ellington states clearly that from the day he started collaboration with Billy Strayhorn (1938) until the latter’s death (1967), all works presented by the band were to be considered just as much Billy’s as his own, regardless of whose name appeared as composer. Granted, these words were penned after Strayhorn’s death, but I feel they demonstrate tremendous respect and affection for his collaborator. Oh, how foolish of me! Teachout says we basically shouldn’t believe anything in that book. From page 116: “...those who have spent time around geniuses know that some of them cannot bear to be thought less than perfect.” Later on he will attempt to say this piece is clearly the work of Ellington alone, that one of Strayhorn alone. This one is in Duke’s handwriting alone, etc. He doesn’t accept Duke’s recounting of how, when the two composers were in different cities, they would discuss arrangements over the phone, even playing musical ideas back and forth to one another via piano over the phone line. (Again, to be very fair: Teachout says later that this actually happened some of the time.)
Chapter 7: On pages 159-160 Mr. Teachout takes music critic, later talent scout and record producer, John Hammond to task for writing in Down Beat “[H]e [Duke] has purposely kept himself from any contact with the troubles of his people...he shuts his eyes to the abuses being heaped upon his race and his original class...” (Quoting Teachout himself now:) “To criticize Ellington for remaining aloof from ‘the troubles of his people’ was, of course, ridiculous.” It appears, at this point, that the author has forgotten that back in Chapter 1 he wrote that Duke took advantage of his relatively light skin tone to advance his own status in the white-dominated society. Oops. “In addition to being simple-minded, Hammond’s review was an unforgivably personal assault...” Interesting, since up to this point, for every compliment given Ellington’s accomplishments Teachout has given us three or four bits of “dirt” about how shabbily the book’s subject treated other people.
Chapter 9: The following statement appears on page 192. ”...Strayhorn, UNLIKE ELLINGTON, was blessed with the gift of tunefulness...” (reviewer’s emphasis added). Again, on page 193, the accusation of theft: “By withholding credit for his work, Ellington struck at Strayhorn’s as-yet-unformed sense of identity--and kept on doing so for years to come.” Really? The chap who wrote “Lush Life” while a mere teenager? Who arrived on Duke’s doorstep precocious and talented enough to be put right to work doing charts for the band? This is part of Mr. Teachout’s argument that Ellington was a manipulator of people, and clearly implies a cruel streak (he “struck at”). On pages 193-194 the author dismisses Duke’s claim that he and ‘Swee’ Pea’ collaborated on everything as a “charade with which the younger man went along.” Again, Duke the liar. He cites a scholar’s finding that “only 52” manuscripts can be found that are in both men’s handwriting. But this does not for a moment disprove that other compositions were, in fact, discussed between the two when they were geographically separated. A rather bizarre claim is made on page 195: Strayhorn quoted Ravel’s “Valses nobles et sentimentales” in the opening bars of “Chelsea Bridge”...before he’d ever heard the work! I guess Mr. Teachout believes in “universal consciousness.”
Chapter 11: The author relishes the failure of “Jump For Joy” to be financially sustainable and to make it to Broadway. (It ran for 101 performances in Los Angeles in 1941.) He complains that the show’s anti-racist message is heavy-handed. Page 232: “It would not be the last time that Daisy Ellington’s pampered son ran afoul of the gods of the copybook headings.” Concerning a proposed collaboration with Orson Welles that never bore fruit, Teachout declares both men were “spoiled children.”
Chapter 13: Teachout continues to relish failures of Duke’s efforts in the realm of musical theater. On page 265 he quotes approvingly from a critical article in Saturday Review by composer Alec Wilder. But included is this Wilder observation: “...the man [Ellington] has the knack, as always, for creating lovely melodic lines...” I guess Teachout would claim that must be Strayhorn’s work, stolen by Duke.
Chapter 14: More beating of the drum on theme of failures of the extended works Ellington moved more toward as the years went by, apparently quoting every negative contemporary review the author could dredge up. On page 298, on subject of “Such Sweet Thunder,” he complains that previously composed works, e.g. “The Star-Crossed Lovers,” were incorporated into this Shakespearean-themed suite. Elsewhere he has complained that thematic titles were appended to works previously composed in other contexts, or with no particular programmatic context, especially “In A Harlem Air-Shaft.” Mr. Teachout, I believe this is known as artistic license and a composer’s prerogative. Critics long complained that in “Ein Heldenleben,” Richard Strauss recycled bits and pieces of his best-known earlier works. Be that as it may, this listener has always thrilled to the “hero’s theme” in that opus. To be fair yet again, I note that after this griping the author deigns to allow that “For all its limitations, ‘Such Sweet Thunder’...is a satisfying piece...” High praise indeed!
Chapter 16: On page 339 Mr. Teachout objects that a very enthusiastic review of Gunther Schuller’s EARLY JAZZ: ITS ROOTS AND MUSICAL DEVELOPMENT, which featured a 40-page chapter on Duke full of high praise, “...was written not by a musicologist but by Frank Conroy, a novelist and part-time jazz pianist.” Turning to the dust jacket blurbs of Teachout’s own book, what do we learn of HIS credentials? “Terry Teachout is the drama critic for The Wall Street Journal. He blogs about the arts...He has also written two plays...[He] played jazz bass professionally before becoming a full-time writer.” Interesting, yes? If we should discount Mr. Conroy’s opinions based on his background, aren’t we entitled to do the same in Mr. Teachout’s case?
I will make two final points. Mr. Teachout offers the hypothesis that “Black, Brown and Beige” (the thematic, extended work debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1943) is mostly about internal strife within the black community--the “caste system” or hierarchy determined by skin tone--rather than the consequences of having dark skin in a racist society. (For the last time, to show my fairness: the author does acknowledge the burden of racism on black folk in America.) Divisions of this nature are acknowledged within the African-American community, but I find the author’s obsession with this phenomenon unproductive. Perhaps Mr. Teachout isn’t familiar with Big Bill Broonzy’s song “Black, Brown and White,” which lays things out clearly with these lyrics: “If you’s white, you alright; If you’s brown, stick around. But as you is black, whoa brother, Get back, get back, get back!”
Finally, I point out that on several occasions Mr. Teachout credits a detractor of Duke’s character as quoting an “unnamed source” for some juicy gossip. In this reviewer’s opinion, this is unsound journalism. I am reminded of an old joke that the author is probably old enough to be familiar with. A man is on trial for physically abusing his wife. On the witness stand, he denies laying a hand on his spouse. So the Prosecutor asks: “Well then, can you tell us exactly when you STOPPED beating your wife?” So, Mr. Teachout, when did YOU stop beating YOUR wife? No one is without sin, and a balanced view of a figure like Duke Ellington is desirable, but I find the glee with which this book besmirches his reputation quite unpalatable.