'Duke': an elegant biography reveals the essential Ellington

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Duke Ellington was not the first to try to make a lady out of jazz but he certainly was the most game and resolute in trying to put jazz in top hat and tails. Jazz was already the most popular American music on the radio and in recordings.

Publicists and popular magazines were promoting it. Ellington himself had his own weekly radio program, and he and his orchestra had been enjoying the financial and social rewards of making jazz music for 20 years. But now it was 1943, and Carnegie Hall was calling.

By Terry Teachout.
Gotham Books ($30).

Ellington yearned to be known as more than a bandleader and writer of popular songs, and playing Carnegie Hall would be his shining moment. But because he was both a consummate procrastinator and a man who kept a grueling road schedule, he put off composing a 45-minute opera-symphony-suite titled "Black, Brown and Beige," the centerpiece of the Carnegie Hall concert, until six weeks before the date and was applying finishing touches the day of the show.

Much had already been written about Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington when Terry Teachout began what may turn out to be the definitive biography of America's greatest jazz and pop music composer and bandleader. It's been more than 40 years since Ellington's passing and much has happened in American music that has allowed the wisdom of hindsight and perspective for Mr. Teachout, author of a well-received biography of Louis Armstrong.

Mr. Teachout, drama critic at The Wall Street Journal, does his job, assiduously researching Ellington's life and piecing together the trove of music criticism, biographical profiles, magazine and journal articles. His biography benefits from hundreds of existing interviews from those who knew Ellington best including his son, Mercer Ellington, record producer/manager Norman Granz, and many archival interviews with the musicians who were his side men.

The book unfolds chronologically. We learn about Ellington's upbringing. His father was servant/chauffeur to the wealthy, and his mother was a member of the aspiring black middle-class of Washington, D.C. There was a piano in the house but the young Ellington never took much of an interest until he heard a piano-roll version of "Junk Man Rag."

In his autobiography he wrote, "I cannot tell you what that music did to me." He was 13 years old. At 16 he played his first professional gig. The next year he dropped out of Armstrong Technical High School where he was studying to become a commercial artist. There was only room for music now. By the time he was 18 he had formed his own band and was playing "music for all occasions" in Washington.

By 1923 the fledgling band leader left for New York. "Harlem, to our minds, did indeed have the world's most glamorous atmosphere. We had to go there ... it was New York that filled our imagination."

Mr. Teachout possesses an astonishing familiarity with the music of Ellington and his contemporaries (not the least of which was Billy Strayhorn, who lived in Homewood and graduated from Westinghouse High School).

Readers are treated to comments and inside information about the workings of the famous Ellington band. Details of the personalities and working habits of the band members are elucidated, giving the reader better understanding of the music itself including the importance of improvisation and the contribution of each band member in the creation of many hit songs that Ellington who did the arranging was then credited with.

It's a very thorough survey, linear in structure and moving from one hit recording to the next. Yet I enjoyed the moments when Mr. Teachout went off the linear path to analyze the man behind the musical genius.

Despite the wealth of material available about Ellington, the trail is not always easy to follow. The roadblocks and obstacles, false turns, covered tracks were put in place by Ellington himself. Mr. Teachout's challenge is that Ellington did not necessarily want to be known.

His 1973 autobiography, "Music Is My Mistress," conceals as much as it reveals. It must be filtered through Ellington's love of good fiction and his other agendas, his legacy chief among them.

He spent a lifetime in the parallel, often cruel and distorted world of being black in America. His life and career not only spanned the growth and maturity of jazz as a unique American art form, but also incredible social movement and development in America.

He was determined to develop and maintain a public persona that would reflect positively on his race, ingrained in him by his mother. This often conflicted with a general call and responsibility for black Americans of his status to come forth and speak against discriminatory practices and on behalf of civil rights.

He did fight this fight, though, in his own way, certainly the way he deemed would be most effective. American Negro life was his inspiration. He created the sounds that embodied the moods and inflections that signified the various facets of African-American culture. As I came to understand Ellington's life, it was interesting to compare what he did with his compositions to what August Wilson did with his plays.

Ellington wanted to create something more than good dance music, something with social significance that would better stand the test of time and enhance his reputation. He had never attempted anything as challenging as "Black, Brown and Beige." But the requirements that it took to compose these kinds of symphonic forms weren't necessarily a good fit with his work habits and methods of composing.

The audience was sitting and listening now instead of dancing. Tempos created for dancing disappeared and so did a very popular component of the art form. It received a mixed reception as did future attempts at orchestral work, all carefully chronicled by Mr. Teachout.

The sophistication and dignity and the top hat and tails would have to wait the passing of time for music critics, historians, and academics to understand the depth, beauty and significance of the unique American art form known as jazz.

Rob Zellers is the education director at Pittsburgh Public Theater and a playwright.

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