Book Review: Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington

Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington
by Terry Teachout (New York: Gotham Books, 2013). 483 pp. Hardcover, $30.

According to Terry Teachout, Duke Ellington's story is one of "a somewhat better-than-average stride pianist largely devoid of formal musical training [who] managed to turn himself into a great composer." Ellington had ample help from his organization, which included the gifted composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn, who succinctly described his employer's modus operandi: "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." Without standout band members, and without Strayhorn himself, that effect would have been significantly less memorable.

Teachout, a veteran music journalist who wrote the Louis Armstrong biography Pops, stands, like his subject, on the shoulders of others. Duke, he notes, is "synthesis . . . substantially based on the work of academic researchers and other scholars." Nevertheless, Teachout is a master joiner who has skillfully turned and assembled this book's component parts. A former jazz bassist, he has complemented his narrative with musical analyses.

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, DC, in 1899, to middle-class parents, who taught him to shun improprieties that would cast an unfavorable light on his race or on himself—a precept that underpinned his discreet persona. He was 14 when he first heard ragtime piano and began hanging out with musicians who played in that syncopated, proto-jazz style. By the time he was 20, Ellington was successfully booking and playing in bands, but Teachout points out that he was no more than an "obscure twenty-four-year-old society pianist" when he moved to New York and began performing in Harlem, which by then "had replaced Washington as the unofficial capital of black America."

Ellington's first Gotham group was a sextet called the Washingtonians; his bandmates named him leader after their original frontman was caught cheating on fees. They soon moved to a midtown theater-district club where they played for four years, attracting some notice; they also recorded. From there it was back uptown, where the band, now expanded to 10 players, opened at the Cotton Club, Harlem's most expensive nightspot. That posh, nocturnal playground for white sophisticates proved the right place at the right time. The newly formed Columbia Broadcasting System needed new radio shows to compete with such NBC programs as Amos 'n' Andy, a runaway hit with black title characters (played by white actors), and in February 1929 CBS began broadcasting the Ellington band's performances from coast to coast. Ellington, about to turn 30, found himself in the beam of a powerful spotlight. Notwithstanding some flickers over the years, it would continue to brighten his image. Ultimately, his fame rose well above the level usually accorded jazz musicians.

Ellington left for posterity some 1700 compositions. He had trouble finishing pieces before the time to perform them was upon him—Teachout says this definitely affected their quality—and he had no real knack for melody, a limitation that led him to co-opt tunes from cohorts. Because he was unable to conceive extended musical structures, his larger, serious works were segmented—necklaces of strung-together gems.

Billy Strayhorn—boyish, bespectacled, and 16 years younger than Ellington—was his chief courtier. They met just after Strayhorn turned 23, and the young musical virtuoso was soon living with Ellington and his family on Harlem's comfortable Sugar Hill. The first tune Strayhorn wrote for his employer, "Take the 'A' Train," became the band's theme song, and during their 28 years together it was frequently unclear where one man's work left off and the other's began. When Ellington did credit his musical alter ego, the press tended to overlook Strayhorn, who seems to have stayed the course primarily because he was openly gay and understood the problems he'd face on his own.

Their relationship exemplified Ellington's treatment of others: He wanted control. That was evident in his dealings with women—not only his countless casual bedmates, but his few longer-term companions, two of whom have been referred to as his second and third wives. In fact, Ellington had only one wife, the former Edna Thompson, whom he dutifully married in his teens after making her pregnant. He wouldn't divorce Edna, even after decades of separation.

Heeding his master's voice took a toll on Strayhorn, who drank himself into oblivion and died in 1967, at age 51. Ellington was devastated. "Billy Strayhorn left that big yawning void," he told a reporter the following year. In Lush Life (1996), a biography of Strayhorn that makes the ideal companion volume to this book, author David Hajdu reported that on the first anniversary of his protÇgÇ's death, the still-grieving maestro was seen walking alone beside the Hudson River, at the spot where Strayhorn's ashes had been scattered.

Ellington soldiered on, spending much of his time on the road until his own death, at 75, seven years later. Teachout suggests that at least some of the phone calls he habitually made from his hotel rooms in the pre-dawn hours were signs that "he longed for companionship and was too proud to ask for it." Despite all the glory that had been bestowed on him, Duke Ellington appears to have died a lonely man.—David Lander

Jerold Towber's picture

So you agree with moldy fig numero uno that Ellington is "a somewhat better-than-average stride pianist.."

Ellington swings like crazy, plays impossibly beautiful textures, and has a harmonic genius that has no equal. His left hand rocks.

Listen to Money Jungle or Piano Reflections. Or better yet remain silent andwallow in your ignorance. Beauty escapes you.