I was going to write an in-depth review but why? If you're familiar with Teachout's great book on Louis Armstrong, this is very much in that mold. Plus, when I looked closely at the cover photograph, I noticed that it was Ellington's left side--with the long scar from a razor cut inflicted by his wife in 1929--something he attempted to hide. So I was intrigued and fairly sure that this was no glossy, shallow (there's 81 pages of Source Notes!) look at Ellington. While Teachout never really is able (through the circumstance of Ellington not being able to speak for himself) to delve into the nitty-gritty of who and what Ellington really was (he never talked much about himself), his penchant for detail gives the reader a long inside look at Ellington himself.
Some details about the man's lifestyle (his self-centeredness for one, taking credit for compositions not entirely his own is another), and his views on life and people (he was a lifelong procrastinator and treated people--especially women--poorly) might surprise you. His life, both in music (most of the book) and out, the music itself (Teachout feels that Ellington may have tried to go further musically than he was able), and the people (Billy Strayhorn and their relationship is a good example) are looked at in depth. Plus, the many musicians/people he crossed paths with (including the 900 musicians who passed through his bands) throughout his life are open to Teachout's research and help immensely in giving a new, valuable, and interesting look at Ellington--even though his friends and band mates struggled to understand the "real" Ellington. Through years-long, diligent, in-depth research and the (relatively few) photographs from various periods in Duke's life we come away with even more respect, closeness, and awe for Ellington's many accomplishments.
If you're a jazz fan, or a fan of good music in general, or want to learn more about one of the Twentieth Century's true geniuses, then you should read this tome on Ellington. As I said, Teachout goes the route of including much detail about his subject, and for some that may be a bit of a challenge if you're wanting a broad, general overview of Ellington. If so, Teachout lists a number of biographies on Ellington for reference. Also included is a list of some of the main musical pieces Ellington was known for. But Ellington was responsible for so many great compositions and so much actual music its hard (if not impossible) to list every great thing he's recorded. But in the end those details are what gives the book (and Ellington) a foundation and adds more information about Duke (a nickname possibly given to him by childhood friends "...partly because of his princely manner...and partly because his mother dressed him so stylishly."). And those details--some of them seemingly inconsequential--are the mark of an author who takes his subject seriously, and it shows all through this book. And fans are ultimately all the better for those details.
To paraphrase Miles Davis--"All musicians should get on their knees and thank Ellington." This book balances Ellington's life and viewpoints with his music-making (areas which are oftentimes at odds with his public perception), and gives the reader a look into a man with flaws much like all of us. Ellington did so much for jazz and music in general. So its about time that someone, who is qualified to write a book with so much detail about a giant of music, has finally done so. And jazz/music lovers are the better for it. With its embossed jacket title of "DUKE", and end papers filled with color reproductions of record labels, this is a well put together book. This book can sit next to Teachout's Armstrong book (and other good biographies) in your library. One of the better books of its kind this year.
Also, if you're looking for a good overview of Ellington's music from the 1920's into the 1970's, look for a book (pub. 1993 by Oxford, edited by Mark Tucker) titled "The Duke Ellington Reader". Included in it's 500 pages (not including two indexes) are reviews, critiques, essays, and interviews (Ellington and various band members) that cuts across several decades, and from many sources that really have the flavor of those particular times. This is a book that Ellington fans should have in their library--and it's still available from several sellers on Amazon, or check your neighborhood used book dealer. It's a valuable look through time at Duke's music.
AND SPEAKING OF GREAT BIOGRAPHIES ON DESERVING JAZZ MUSICIANS, check out "WAIL The Life of Bud Powell" (pub. 2012), by Peter Pullman. If Armstrong and Ellington are important to you, and you're a jazz fan--you need Pullman's book. His research on Powell is every bit the equal (and may be better) than Teachout's look at Armstrong and/or Ellington. Its available as a Kindle edition on Amazon, but I prefer a paper book that I can hold in my hands--to each his own--so I e-mailed Pullman (Google his name and book title) and purchased a "hard" trade size, soft cover copy, and received it in short order. A very fine piece of research and writing. This is (and will continue to be) the best book on Powell and his music. Miss this at your own loss.
Jazz Officer Spaak
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.
Recently I heard an experienced, high-profile moderator of a syndicated, "mainstream" jazz show tell his worldwide audience that he chose not to play "early jazz" (i.e. Louis, Duke, Prez, Bird) not because he had anything "against it" but because he didn't "know much about it." What initially seemed like a commendable moment of candor soon became a gnawing question in my mind: why not learn? My shelves of books about jazz now fill an entire room, but there is always room for another study about the music's most elusive, enigmatic and arguably greatest musician. Teachout's book helps demystify the man without diminishing the music of jazz' most protean, prolific, complex musical genius (comparing Ellington's "Concerts of Sacred Music" to Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" is like moving from the art of Shakespeare, who embraces a worldly, earthly, sensuous aesthetic, to the visionary poetry Shelley, a vatic artist whose upward, or Apollonian, trajectory is at once more narrow and focused in reach and scope.
As an impressionable student of the music (beginning with Marshall Stearns groundbreaking "The Story of Jazz"), I recall that with respect to Ellington I often experienced disappointment when his public persona did not always seem to measure up to his reputation (as gathered from jazz histories, Downbeat and Metronome reviews, and of course those Columbia long-playing records). His celebrity, I sensed, was often ill-served in popular media like the Johnny Carson Show, which simply refused to acknowledge rank, loyalty and privilege. (Moreover, I suspect Doc and the band were relatively clueless about his actual importance.) His "family" (i.e. the Ellington band) would give me assorted, sometimes contradictory, stories. Russell Procope was the most loyal, expressing a regard for the Maestro that was never less than reverential. All of the other guys had problems, gripes, demons of one sort or another. Sam Woodyard became irascible at the very mention of Duke's addition of a 2nd drummer (Jimmy Johnson, Elvin Jones). Truth be told, the life of the road was not easy--especially for aging noblesse oblige in the most venerable of all road bands (Duke's was not one of the overnight ensembles that Stan and Woody would assemble by raiding college bands like those at North Texas State for talent that was rough but ready, promising players "made to go"). The Ellington band's manager Al Szelle was tired and weary, Paul Gonsalves was an imploding potential disaster, Johnny Hodges was a temperamental, demoted diva, Lawrence Brown--once as crucial to the Ellington ensemble sound as Hodges--was no longer getting his due. Toward the end, bassist Joe Benjamin summed it up for me: "Be glad you didn't pursue a music career. It's a lousy way to make a living."
But out of this frequently discordant family came music the likes of which the world of jazz, or of music, has never heard or seen. Few remember that Duke at first resisted the "swing thing." His music was about detail, nuance, timbre and color--apparent in every measure of, for instance, "Flamingo," which is far more than a period piece arranged as "background" for its baritone vocalist, Herb Jeffries. (The last living member of an Ellington band before his recent passing at the age of 100+, Jeffries also had a productive career in the movies as the Bronze Buckaroo of "race Westerns" and was once married to stripper Tempest Storm.) Some are unaware of the intricate arrangements of the Blanton-Webster band, and how quickly Duke was able to showcase his new prodigy, Jimmy Blanton--the first virtuoso bass player in jazz--with the same attention to musical detail as in the Jeffries hit song. No boring bass solos for Blanton. Duke exploited this new talent to the most musical of ends, making the instrument sing through a combination of Blanton's unprecedented chops and arranging ingenuity of the Ellington-Strayhorn dynamic duo.
For me the great paradox of Duke was a profound one, centered on the relationship of the human voice, initially the only instrument African-Americans were allowed to employ on plantations run by Protestant overlords, and the instruments that became increasingly important around the turn of the century, especially in New Orleans. Duke's music, more than any other, represented that relationship so well that every Ellington performance (not merely his "Black, Brown and Beige: A Tone Poem Parallel to the History of the American Negro") is an "aural avatar" of the African-American experience. To be more specific, on the one hand, Ellington insisted on players who, in addition to expressing their tonal personalities through their horns, were capable of "vocalizing" on their instruments. Bubber Miley, Tricky Sam Nanton, then Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams and later Clark Terry and the albums Duke recorded with as many as three plunger-equipped trombones--the instruments "speak" with a personal authority found in no other musical ensemble. On the other hand, he saw his vocalists as, above all, "instruments" in his band. In early pieces like "Creole Love Call" the wordless human voice was merely another "instrumental voice" in the richly textured ensemble. When he wrote pop tunes, the melodies were as angular and elliptical as Monk's original compositions, intimidating to most vocalists: "Sophisticated Lady," "In a Sentimenal Mood," "I've Got It Bad" (all with octave leaps within the first two measures), "Prelude to a Kiss" (congested chromatics that eventually reach a carefully conceived goal). His "Heaven" was typical Duke, a Shakespearean "sensuous" and worldly heaven with "pretty things"; not a Dante-like Romantic or spritual vision. And he persuaded Sweden's greatest--Alice Babs--to "nail" each of the notes in his final, eschatalogical, Biblical works.
It's easy, especially for Ellington connoisseurs, to treat the 1956 Newport event as inferior Duke--most of it was a reconstruction; it was more about the social fuss and mini-riot than the music; it became Duke's biggest seller yet Columbia would fire Duke 4 years later in favor of Monk and Mingus (and Miles). But upon listening to the CD restoration of the concert it rises in historical importance, finally earning its popular reputation as musical peak in the musical career of Duke. What started out to be a diastrous evening, with 4 band members missing, was masterminded by the Maestro into the band's moment of glory. Despite low expectations surrounding Duke's aging warriors, the band on that night proved they could swing harder than any band of any size, thanks to Duke's clever dovetailing of two old blues arrangements ("Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue"), along with Duke's vocal encouragement and strategically placed, percussively played, piano accompaniment, setting the stage for the most famous solo (and deservedly so) in not just Newport's 60 years but the entire history of jazz festivals, and moreover "Ellington at Newport 1956" was a harbinger of Woodstock. Only Paul Gonsalves had the humility and self-possession to be able to remain "within himself," eschewing showboating in favor of minor alterations in each of his 28-choruses to maintain interest, and above all remaining content to "ride the groove." Coltrane, Rollins, Hawk, Jaws--they couldn't have done it. They would have overwhelmed the moment, arresting the flow by directing attention to themselves. But not the modest Paul, whose ambitions never seemed to extend outside of the Ellington world. Ellington At Newport 1956
And Duke's first LP, with Louis Belson's "Skin Deep" and the most ambitious "A Train" on record--a bebop scat solo by Betty Roché followed by a raging up-tempo finish by Gonsalves--it's a recording that strangely was neglected (as were many others), and now we come to a moment in history where time has yielded to a plethora of simultaneous moments, all of them being streamed to us as digital files unrelated to anything but themselves.
Duke Ellington was an American original. I somehow missed much of the reputed elegance and eloquence--maybe I was too late. I saw the musician, the leader, the force who, even to the greatest musicians--like Joe Williams and Frank Sinatra--seemed inscrutable, the creator of music they could scarcely account for let alone sing. (Sadly, Sinatra gave up on "Lush Life" after recording the first half with Nelson Riddle.) And the ONLY master take of Duke's vignette representing "A Mid-Summer Night's Dream" is the original vinyl copy of "Such Sweet Thunder." It's only the original Columbia album from 1956 that captures the moment when Clark Terry makes his fleugelhorn speak the immortal words of Puck: "Such fools these mortals be." [Look for a used copy of the original LP on eBay: all reissued editions of one of Duke's inarguable masterpieces employ the wrong original tape.}
Duke had enough on his mind just to "make" the music (while attending to his public persona) without the burden of archiving, organizing, and curating the music--most of it in ragged shape as score. The last I looked, the most popular Ellington album on Amazon was the least of his meetings: "Ellington and Coltrane." It's a nice gesture, an iconic and symbolic meeting between two of the seminal giants, past and present (who would have believed Trane would precede Duke's passing by 6 years?). But it's an insult to Duke's music, more evidence that the many of the remaining jazz public can't seem to "get" the Ellington sound or comprehend why, for many of us, just hearing a few measures of the unique ensemble sound in an otherwise bad performance will suffice.
The last time I saw Duke was at a 4-hour prom 2 blocks from my house. Four long and interminable hours, with only a bus ride from Kenosha, WI to Kansas City for the next night's gig to look forward to. Duke received 4 requests for "Satin Doll"--not because the crowd loved it that much but because they were clueless about its previous performance. Duke acknowledged each request, and the band played the song, with Duke playing the old white beater I personally had refused to used on 5-6 occasions. The total cost for the band was $2000--and this was almost 10 years after the Beatles had invaded America, leading to entertainers receiving obscene amounts for their appearances, with all sorts of petty demands in their contracts. But Duke kept the rusty old A Train on the warped tracks, sounding almost like new. And he remained on stage for all 4 hours, writing music during intermission. At the end of the evening, a trombone player sleeping on the floor of the bandstand had to be carried out, and finally it was Duke and me--with Harry waiting in the limo. The temperature was below freezing, but it didn't matter to Duke. In another month he would give a solo piano concert at the Whitney Museum in NYC. At that moment, I not only loved him madly but began to understand why.
Needless to say, we'll never see another pair of American Maestros like Duke and Leonard Bernstein (I doubt that a Paul Whiteman was in the same league). Perhaps both had too many irons in the fire, and it cost them (I've noticed as much fuzziness in people's memory when I bring up the name of Bernstein as that of Ellington. Perhaps Ellington would strike greater recognition in a mass survey than "Lennie.") Even so, it's crucial that writers like Teachout continue to write about Duke (and will we ever see Vol. 2 of Gary Giddins' Bing Crosby biography that ended at the 1940 mark?) The written word is becoming ever cheaper. The amount of published text is doubling every 5 years. If in addition to the melting of the polar ice caps we experience a meltdown of our cultural memory, the battle is lost.
I wish Teachout had focused primarily on the art rather than the artist. Duke's music was at once universal and so personal that to know his music is to know the man. And to those jazz disc jockeys, who apparently are too old to learn and who claim to favor "mainstream jazz" but only if it's a Blue Note date recorded in the '50s by Van Gelder, why not play some Ellington, even if you haven't been able to reduce the music to your understanding?--and not simply his "popular hits" but the music itself--as it sounded only when the Maestro played it on his instrument, which was NOT a piano: it was the Duke Elliington Orchestra.