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Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington [Hardcover]

Terry Teachout
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 22 2013
A major new biography of Duke Ellington from the acclaimed author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was the greatest jazz composer of the twentieth century—and an impenetrably enigmatic personality whom no one, not even his closest friends, claimed to understand. The grandson of a slave, he dropped out of high school to become one of the world’s most famous musicians, a showman of incomparable suavity who was as comfortable in Carnegie Hall as in the nightclubs where he honed his style. He wrote some fifteen hundred compositions, many of which, like “Mood Indigo” and “Sophisticated Lady,” remain beloved standards, and he sought inspiration in an endless string of transient lovers, concealing his inner self behind a smiling mask of flowery language and ironic charm.
As the biographer of Louis Armstrong, Terry Teachout is uniquely qualified to tell the story of the public and private lives of Duke Ellington. Duke peels away countless layers of Ellington’s evasion and public deception to tell the unvarnished truth about the creative genius who inspired Miles Davis to say, “All the musicians should get together one certain day and get down on their knees and thank Duke.”

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"Compelling narrative flow...poised impartiality. . . .Teachout writes in an earthbound style marked by sound scholarship and easy readability. . . . Duke humanizes a man whom history has kept on a pedestal.”
The New York Times Book Review

“A thoroughly researched homage…Teachout delivers a Duke unlike any we’ve seen in previous biographies…At last, Teachout affirms that music was Ellington’s greatest mistress – and to her, the composer was unrelentingly loyal.”
Essence Magazine
“Comprehensive and well-researched…important….[an] entertaining and valuable biography.”
Booklist, Starred Review
“Teachout gives much insight into Ellington's life, personality, working habits, and compositions. This work should appeal to Ellington enthusiasts as well as casual jazz fans.”
Library Journal
“Revealing…Teachout neatly balances colorful anecdote with shrewd character assessments and musicological analysis, and he manages to debunk Ellington’s self-mythologizing, while preserving his stature as the man who caught jazz’s ephemeral genius in a bottle.”
Publishers Weekly
"Terry Teachout’s biography is destined to be the definitive biography of bandleader, composer, and complex man—Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington."
The American Rag

One of The Daily Beast’s Fall 2013 Must-Reads
Chosen as a Top 10 Music Book by Publishers Weekly

A Conversation with TERRY TEACHOUT, author of DUKE 
Exactly how important a composer was Duke Ellington?
Ellington was the most important jazz composer of the twentieth century, and one of the greatest composers in any genre of music. Not only was he a major composer of purely instrumental music, but he wrote some of the century’s most successful popular songs, including “Mood Indigo” and “Sophisticated Lady,” many of which continue to this day to be performed and recorded. No jazz composer has left a deeper mark on world culture.
What kind of a person was he in private life? Was he trustworthy? Loyal? Honest?
That’s a tricky question! Like many geniuses, Ellington was almost entirely self-centered, though his selfishness didn’t exclude kindness and benevolence—on his own terms. But a fair number of his sidemen considered him unscrupulous, and I can’t say that I blame them for feeling that way.
Was Ellington as great a lover as he’s said to have been?
Even greater, by all accounts. Throughout his life Ellington was catnip to women, and he rarely said “no” when they invited him into their beds. I didn’t even try to count his lovers—I can’t count that high.
Did Ellington really write all of his hit songs and instrumental compositions—or did he have unacknowledged collaborators?
He had many unacknowledged collaborators, starting with Billy Strayhorn, his closest musical associate. He wasn’t a plagiarist, but to an extent that’s not generally realized or fully understood by most of his fans, Ellington created his music collectively—though he was always the auteur, the man who made the ultimate decisions, and he was solely responsible for writing most of his major instrumental pieces. On the other hand, bits and pieces of the melodies of most of his big pop hits were written by his sidemen. To be sure, he usually gave credit where it was due, but not always, and he tried whenever possible to buy those bits and pieces for flat fees instead of cutting his collaborators in on the songwriting royalties.
What effect did Ellington’s middle-class family background have on his personality and music?
It was absolutely central to his personality—as well as to his music. Ellington saw himself as a member of the light-skinned black bourgeoisie, an elegant, cultivated gentleman who insisted on being taken seriously by the white world and performing not only in nightclubs but in concert halls.
For the uninitiated, what should be the three Ellington songs one should listen to first? Why?
I’d start with “Ko-Ko,” Ellington’s most perfect instrumental composition, written and recorded in 1940. It’s an explosively dynamic blues that comes as close as any record can to summing him up in three minutes. Then I’d choose the original 1930 recording of “Mood Indigo,” which shows us Ellington in a quiet, pensive mood. Last of all, I’d opt for the frenzied live recording of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” that he made in 1956 at the Newport Jazz Festival. Not only will that give you a taste of Ellington’s large-scale compositions, but it’s of enormous historical importance as well, for its popular success shaped the last part of his life.
What was the most surprising fact you came across in your research of his life?
Speaking as a musician and a scholar, I was most surprised by the extent of his borrowings from other musicians. I knew he was in the habit of doing so, but I didn’t fully realize the extent to which his compositional process was shaped by his need to collaborate—which arose in large part from the fact that he found it difficult to write memorable tunes. (I’ll admit, though, that the details of his very enthusiastic sex life occasionally surprised me as well!)
How did Duke get that scar on his face? Why was he so ashamed to show it?
Edna, his wife, attacked him with a razor when she found out in 1929 that he was sleeping with Fredi Washington, a beautiful black actress. I think he was ashamed of the scar because he hated the idea of anyone knowing that he’d ever been at the mercy of a woman. He had enormously complicated feelings about women, a fascinating mixture of attraction, hatred, and—above all—distrust.
Now that you’ve extensively researched Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, who do you have more of an affinity for? Why?
Again, that’s a tricky question. Louis Armstrong was clearly the more likable man, in part because his personality was so completely open and unguarded. Ellington, however, was far more intriguing, for the opposite reason: he only showed you what he wanted you to see, and nothing more. I guess I’d have to say that I would have preferred to be Armstrong’s friend—though I think it would have been great fun to hang out with Ellington on occasion. I’m not sure I would have wanted to work for him, though.

About the Author

Terry Teachout, the drama critic at The Wall Street Journal, is the author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong and Satchmo at the Waldorf, a one-man play about Armstrong’s life and times. He lives in New York City. 

Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Seems to diminish Ellington's talent March 9 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a thorough, revealing, and readable account of Ellington's life both personal and professional. It tends to highlight more his skill as a bandleader and arranger than as a composer, reiterating over and again the many compositions credited to Ellington that were more or less written by someone else. In particular, great attention is given to the genius of Billy Strayhorn (which makes the reader want a biography of Strayhorn himself!). Nevertheless Teachout shows reverence for Ellington while not avoiding less wholesome traits like his relationships with women.

The book focuses quite a bit on times when Ellington was down for the count, times when his compositions flopped, or his band members failed to perform, or he himself seemed worn out. Teachout gives negative reviews for many of Ellington's compositions, leaving one with the impression that the Duke was not as great as Teachout tells us he was in his summary paragraphs.

One of the major impressions we are left with after reading this book is Ellington's singular devotion to his craft - never, even when his reviews were bad, or when his health was failing, or when he was struck by the loss of a treasured soloist, was he able to stop working, touring, and writing. This book paints a very interesting picture of an artist at the mercy of his craft without a way to detach himself from his work and his art.

The book itself is well-written and detailed, although it drags at times. It seemed to me like some of the stories were repeated (e.g. the story behind Black Brown & Beige), but perhaps I'm misremembering.
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4.0 out of 5 stars It is good but incomplete Feb. 27 2014
As an overview of Ellington's life this book is fine. If you are an Ellington aficionado, it skims over those recordings and that period of time you likely listen to the most and most affected by. Also its main theme is that Ellington is a compiler of music rather than a pure composer which gives the reader of Duke the impression that Ellington is a musical cheater. I don't agree with this. What Teachout does not explore is that Miles Davis used his soloists to create his greatest hits, or Paul McCartney use and reuse of his best bits, or mash ups like the Beatle's Love. Ellington exploited this writing form to create great music.

Teachout also does not look at the consistent great engineering and mixes of Duke's recording and how that has contributed to his ongoing popularity and legacy. I truly appreciate the Blanton-Webster period, but I listen mostly and repeatedly to the post 1956 recordings the most (as do most of the hardcore Ellington listeners) - his Impulse!, Columbia and RCA recordings are outstanding and virtually every true audiophile has those recordings. I am often surprised that someone with a $50,000 stereo will demonstrate how great it is with Ellington. Aside from great sound it is great and interesting music. Why does this attachment exist?

If Duke's music is a mash up or based on the riffs provided by the soloists - why does it work so consistently? The reader is left with an impression that Ellington found an angle, more a process rather than genius. That is why I think this work is incomplete.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  45 reviews
30 of 36 people found the following review helpful
By Stuart Jefferson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read this first! Dec 13 2013
By Milton Wimmer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I am not an Ellington scholar, by any stretch of the imagination. But I have read quite a bit about him and have played and studied 100 or more of his 3 1/2 minute chestnuts. That said, I can say without reservation that this is the best single piece of Ellington scholarship I've read to date. There are opinions galore, of course, but most appear to be based on fairly solid research. (The bibliography and footnotes section at the end of the book are as extensive as I've ever seen in a biography.) I'd certainly recommend you read Terry's book before you read Duke's autobiography, which, to me, was largely a waste of time. As in most things personal to Ellington, the concept of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth appear to have been largely alien to him.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great bio, for fans and non-fans alike Nov. 16 2013
By G. Gardner - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Terry Teachout's new bio of Ellington is briskly and engagingly written, and very informative. He has mined about as much personal information on Ellington as we are likely to get. There's no heavy musical analysis but lots of information about the music. He keeps the story clipping along and provides plenty of interesting anecdotes and social history of the period. I would highly recommend it for established fans, who will get a clearer understanding of Ellington as a person, as well as for the lay person, who will get a broad overview of Ellington's work and a nice glimpse of jazz culture.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent within its limits March 16 2014
By Michael P. Zirpolo - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
For those who are inclined to learn more about Duke Ellington’s music, and about him as a person, the book "Duke…A Life of Duke Ellington," by Terry Teachout is highly recommended.

The body of the book, 361 pages, covers Ellington’s life and work concisely but admirably. Mr.Teachout, the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, and a bassist who has played jazz, is to be commended for marshaling a number of critically important resources prior to and during the time he wrote the book. For those who are interested in the sources of the assistance Mr. Teachout received, a brief summary of them is provided in the book’s afterword.

The book’s formal aspects merit some comment. The dust jacket, bearing interesting and somewhat rare photos of Ellington on the front, back and spine, is extremely attractive. In fact, most of the photos displayed in the book have seldom been published, and are presented at points in the narrative where they enhance what is being discussed. Appearing inside the front and back covers of the book are collages of colorful labels of several dozen of Ellington’s recordings, a highly decorative touch.

Mr.Teachout’s text is well supported by strong research. Unfortunately, the manner in which the source notes/end notes are placed at the end of the main body of text, without superscript numbers in the text and corresponding numbers in the end notes, does not allow for easy source identification.

No biography of Duke Ellington can possibly be definitive in just 361 pages. Nevertheless, Mr. Teachout does an excellent job or providing an informative survey of Ellington's life and work.

Mr.Teachout’s examination of the story of Duke Ellington’s life is, as he honestly admitted in the afterword, “not so much a work of scholarship as an act of synthesis.” His “synthesis” was well guided by a number of people who have distinguished themselves as Ellington scholars. The sources relied upon by him are what I consider to be fairly mainstream and reasonably authoritative. The opinions he expressed, based on information gleaned from these sources, are uniformly judicious. I found no startling or new revelations in Mr. Teachout’s telling of the story of Ellington’s life. Still, it is good to have so much quality research about Ellington in one book.

It is easy when writing a review of a book on a subject to vast as Duke Ellington, to list the significant events, compositions, classic performance and recordings that have not been addressed in the book. I prefer to give credit to the author, especially one, as Mr. Teachout has done, who has conscientiously researched his subject, and presented abundant material about Ellington's life and work in a highly readable book.

Mr. Teachout devotes considerable explanation to Ellington's modus operandi as a composer. This is important in a biography about a composer as idiosyncratic as Duke Ellington. In the final analysis however, no matter what means Ellington employed to create his music, he understood how to manipulate instrumental and vocal sounds to make memorable music. Like all great composers, from Bach to Bartok, he knew that hauntingly evocative music could be made by skillfully and imaginatively blending as few as two or three sounds. (Has anyone yet figured out what instruments created that sound at the end (just before the celesta) of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing’)? In the crassly commercial world of entertainment, where he lived and worked for over fifty years, he consistently produced highly individual and provocative music. For that, we all must be grateful. Mr. Teachout’s fine book is a reminder to us about that, and as such is most welcome.

Michael P. Zirpolo,
"Mr. Trumpet...the Trials, Tribulations
and Triumph of Bunny Berigan"
9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Just the facts please March 29 2014
By J. McCampbell - Published on Amazon.com
If you want to find out how much of a slimebag he was, read Don George's book, Sweet Man. If you want to find out how much of a credit stealer he was, read David Hajdu's book on Strayhorn. If you want a great overall view of how people saw him, read either Mercer Ellington's book or Stuart Nicholson's Reminiscing in Tempo. If you want to read a book where the author cannot keep his own voice out of the text for more than a page, read this book. Teachout's problem is two-fold. One, he comes to the same conclusion most older author's on Ellington's career did, where the best period is the Blanton-Webster band. Two, he constantly suggests that Ellington wanted to be a composer at the level of a classical musician, and that he failed doing it. Both of these ideas cloud the entire book, which (typically) short changes the last three decades of his life. Teachout comes across as being what my mother would call "snippy." For those of us who view Ellington's work as a great front runner for a lot of modern music in many fields, we let the classical concepts of his work go. It is what it is, and in that, it has a lot of merit. Furthermore, there is the amazing story in merely keeping his band together under the banner for so long it became an institution. Having read numerous other books on Ellington, this one ranks as just a brief overview. Most of his research seems to be out of other author's work. I would worry that suggesting this as a first read for someone interested in Ellington, would turn them off.
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