Review: 'Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington' by Terry Teachout

Teachout's flawed attempt to deconstruct a genius

Duke Ellington

Portrait of American jazz pianist, composer and bandleader Duke Ellington taken in the 1930s. Ellington is the subject of a new biography called "Duke" by Terry Teachout. (Frank Driggs Collection, Getty Images)

Even among the pantheon of jazz composers, Duke Ellington looms large, his staggering output unmatched in size or breadth. Hit songs, solo piano pieces, ensemble tone poems, stage musicals, film scores, vast orchestral works — few musical formats of the 20th century went unaddressed by Ellington.


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Though anyone who pens upward of 1,700 compositions inevitably will produce trivialities as well as triumphs, Ellington's list of jazz masterpieces reaches wider than anyone else's, partly because of his obvious genius and partly because his career stretched so long: from his professional debut in 1917 to shortly before his death in 1974, at age 75. Without Ellington tunes such as "In a Sentimental Mood," instrumental classics such as "Mood Indigo" and "Reminiscing in Tempo" and theatrical works such as "Jump for Joy" and "My People," American music would be much diminished.

Yet understanding the personality who created these works — and who stole credit for comparable achievements by his collaborator Billy Strayhorn and others — has proved far more difficult than evaluating his catalog. For Ellington was circumspect about how much, or how little, he revealed of himself to even those who worked with him for decades.

The latest author to attempt to crack the mystery, Terry Teachout, makes a heroic effort but concedes the problem from the outset.

"He talked not to explain himself but to conceal himself," writes Teachout in "Duke."

To Ellington's own musicians, Teachout adds a little later, "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."

By the end of his tome, Teachout concedes simply: "Everyone knows him — yet no one knows him. That was the way he wanted it."

Even so, Teachout gives us valuable glimpses into Ellington's modus operandi and musical insights into some of the composer's significant works. If we never hear in Ellington's voice why he seized songwriting credit from Strayhorn and uncounted other colleagues, if we never come to understand how he felt about the women he promiscuously pursued, if we never fully sense the flesh-and-blood human being in "Duke," that indeed may be because that's how the composer wished it.

We do, however, get a better fix on exactly how Ellington built his celebrated big band and crafted some of his landmark compositions, especially when it comes to his earlier, shorter works. As Ellington's career developed and his musical ambitions expanded, he ventured into more expansive works that Teachout unpersuasively attempts to discount. In so doing, Teachout, alas, reveals more about his own cultural biases and blind spots than about Ellington's compositional idiosyncrasies and achievements.

Even so, the early chapters tracing the process by which Edward Kennedy Ellington invented Duke Ellington prove gratifying to read.

Pampered by his family in Washington, D.C., Ellington took piano lessons at 7 from the improbably named Marietta Clinkscales but didn't really hear the music until he was 13.

"There was no connection between me and music, until I started fiddling with it myself," he said. "As far as anyone teaching me, there was too many rules and regulations, and I just couldn't be shackled into that. As long as I could sit down and figure it out for myself, then that was all right."

Better than all right, considering that the high school dropout — a mostly self-taught musician — launched his career at a pivotal moment in American music: 1917, when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band released the first jazz record and helped ignite the Jazz Age. By the 1920s, young Ellington was leading an ensemble in New York and recruiting musicians who would help him redefine the meaning of jazz (a word he sometimes derided, but a music he defended).

James "Bubber" Miley's gutbucket growls on trumpet, Wellman Braud's lustily slapped notes on bass, Harry Carney's rumbling exhortations on baritone saxophone, Sonny Greer's spectacular colors on drums and Johnny Hodges' crying phrases on alto saxophone, among other contributions, shaped Ellington's music — and vice versa.

"Ellington plays the piano, but his real instrument is the band," Strayhorn wrote. "Each member of his band is to him a distinctive tone color and set of emotions, which he mixes with others equally distinctive to produce a third thing, which I call the Ellington Effect."

That painterly approach to jazz composition was unprecedented before Ellington and made possible the fervent blues expressions of "East St. Louis Toodle-O," the glowing azure shadings of "Mood Indigo" and much more.

Teachout tells this part of the story well, interweaving the arrival of particular musicians in the band with the emergence of key compositions (most of which were inspired by motifs created by Ellington's men but arranged by — and credited to — Ellington, who took most of the royalties). As each player joined the instrumental fray, the ensemble sound became more complex, the compositions more daring, distinctive and satisfying.

Here lies the essential drama of Ellington's story and the essence of his first musical breakthroughs: his gift for assembling unique players and his wizardry at building revelatory compositions around them. But Ellington long bristled at the conventions of the three-minute song form and worked assiduously to break out of them. Works such as "Reminiscing in Tempo" (1935) and the epic "Black, Brown and Beige" (1943) showed him going where precious few jazz or classical composers had ventured before: extended compositions borrowing techniques from both worlds and inventing some along the way.

To this day, "Black, Brown and Beige" — a contemplation on race in America — holds a singular place in the literature, and to this day many critics deride it for allegedly failing to fulfill a variety of their prerequisites.

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