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The Grandest Duke

The Duke Box

Storyville, eight CDs, $79.98
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Leonard Herman Photography, LLC
Duke Ellington at a private party after a performance, Paris, 1960; photograph by Herman Leonard from Jazz, a collection of his images of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and others, to be published by Bloomsbury USA in November

On more than one occasion Duke Ellington described his childhood in Washington, D.C., as a sort of paradise, at least for him and those around him in the family circle. In the song “My Mother, My Father” (written for his 1963 musical show My People) he wrote:

My mother—the greatest—and the prettiest
My father—just handsome—but the wittiest…
I was raised in the palm of the hand
By the very best people in this land
From sun to sun
Their hearts beat as one
My mother—my father—and love

Born Edward Kennedy Ellington in 1899, he was a child of African-American privilege as understood in the early twentieth century. His father James, whose schooling stopped at the eighth grade, was a sometime butler and caterer (he worked on some parties at the Warren G. Harding White House) who later drew blueprints for the Navy; an omnivorous reader fond of operatic music, he “always,” according to Ellington, “acted as though he had money, whether he had it or not…. He raised his family as though he were a millionaire.”

Ellington’s mother Daisy was a high school graduate of strong religious convictions who played piano and insisted on piano lessons for Edward (with the unforgettably named Marietta Clinkscales). Daisy ran her household along lines of Victorian propriety, considered lipstick unacceptable, and disapproved of the blues. She was the object of Ellington’s lifelong devotion. It was in a period of depression following her death in 1935 that he wrote his breakthrough composition “Reminiscing in Tempo.” She had imparted to him the sense of a special destiny, often repeating, as recounted in his autobiography Music Is My Mistress: “Edward, you are blessed. You don’t have anything to worry about. Edward, you are blessed!”

In the social world in which he grew up he was made aware of fine gradations:

I don’t know how many castes of Negroes there were in the City at the time, but I do know that if you decided to mix carelessly with another you would be told that one just did not do that sort of thing.

At his segregated school, his eighth-grade teacher taught that “as representatives of the Negro race we were to command respect for our people…. Negro history was crammed into the curriculum, so that we would know our people all the way back.” As a teenager he saw and was much impressed by W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1915 pageant of black history The Star of Ethiopia. This was at just the moment when Woodrow Wilson was lavishing praise on The Birth of a Nation and enforcing segregation at all levels of his administration. In 1919, during the so-called “Red Summer” in which white-on-black violence escalated across America, a five-day riot erupted in Washington. At the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922, black spectators were restricted to a roped-off area, and the only black speaker was not permitted to sit on the dais.

Music was not a predestined career choice for Ellington. He liked to draw and attended a commercial art school, and in his teens ran a sign-painting business. But by age fifteen he had discovered the profits and pleasures of music, acquiring the musical knowledge he needed not systematically—he had abandoned Mrs. Clinkscales’s lessons early on—but by absorbing what he could from every musician he encountered, whether formally trained or not, plunging into the heart of an emerging musical culture of vital exchanges: “The ear cats loved what the schooled cats did,” he wrote, “and the schooled guys, with fascination, would try what the ear cats were doing.” By the time he was twenty he was living on his own and leading a local band at society parties where they played (in drummer Sonny Greer’s words) “anything and everything—pop songs, jazz songs, dirty songs, torch songs, Jewish songs.”
In 1923 Ellington relocated to New York to get to the center of the music business, and the city remained his ostensible home—although his life for the next fifty years really was to be lived on the road, in a thousand hotel rooms. His nightly radio programs from the Cotton Club made him nationally famous; the New York Daily Mirror described his band in 1930 as “the most prominent Negro broadcasters on the air…as heartily admired by the white as the colored people.” By the early 1940s he figured simultaneously as a supremely popular entertainer; as an uncompromising experimenter who presented challenging compositions at Carnegie Hall; and, as Harvey Cohen documents in great detail, as the African-American artist who had succeeded on an unprecedentedly wide scale in overcoming racial barriers and stereotypes. Whatever the medium or the location, he found ways to present himself on his own terms, creating his own definition of reality, a definition that the world around him—and eventually that included more or less the entire world—was charmed rather than forced into accepting.

Harvey G. Cohen’s Duke Ellington’s America sets about explaining how exactly he managed that feat of persuasion. The book joins an already vast literature on Ellington. Neither an intimate biography nor a comprehensive study of his music, it seeks to map out Ellington’s total enterprise, detailing the obstacles he faced early and late, and at what cost and through what relentless personal effort that enterprise was sustained. Drawing extensively on the Ellington archive at the Smithsonian Institution, Cohen surveys in particular Ellington’s external dealings—his relations with managers, agents, publicists, record producers, journalists, and all the other intermediaries whom he had a knack for keeping at just the right distance. Cohen also, in his most crucial pages, quotes at length from Ellington’s unpublished poetic outline for the never quite finished suite Black, Brown and Beige—material in which Ellington reveals a great deal that he never otherwise acknowledged about his artistic intentions. Bringing together many different voices and sources, Cohen conveys the genuinely epic quality of this career.

Reading Cohen’s book we begin in one nation and end in quite a different one, and as we track Ellington’s musical revolution, we find ourselves at the heart of the changes that brought about that transformation. Cohen’s subject is both the America that shaped Ellington and the other America that—through both his music and his projected self-image—he played a part in creating. The process of sorting out Ellington’s music and his life and parsing what they meant for the life of the past century has hardly begun. There is simply so much there, and its import goes so far beyond matters of musical style. His music is inextricably of a piece with the way he lived and thought.

Of many artists it can be said that deep cultural currents can be read through their work; much rarer are those who, like Ellington, worked so powerfully and subtly on those currents as to transform them. As a personality Ellington had many of the traits one associates more readily with the founders of religious orders or political movements than with lone artists absorbed in self-expression. In a close reading of the details that Cohen amasses, Ellington emerges as a prophetic figure imposing himself almost by stealth, using all the skills of an entertainer and a consummate diplomat.

He lived at the highest energy level every day, and despite his dread of being the subject of a biography (a life written down could only be a life approaching its end) left such abundant traces of himself that Cohen’s six hundred pages can be little more than an abbreviated résumé. Consider his activities in a single unremarkable week in May 1966, when he was sixty-seven: sleeping three hours a night, he scored the Frank Sinatra film Assault on a Queen, performed concerts in Wichita, Little Rock, and San Francisco, recorded the Sinatra score in Los Angeles while playing a three-night gig at Disneyland, then left the morning after the last show for a two-week tour of Japan, all the while carrying on an incandescent social life.

Yet some of those closest to him described him as essentially solitary. His granddaughter said that for all his devotion to family and friends, “I really do think he felt more at home in a hotel room with his piano.” “I’m a hotel man,” he once said. “I like being alone, you know. I don’t know why.” The first of his Sacred Concerts, the trilogy of religious works that were a central focus of his later years, was prefaced with the statement: “Everyone is so alone—the basic, essential state of mankind.” Foremost among the many and profound paradoxes that Ellington embodies is this duality of the man alone in the hotel room and the man so thoroughly enmeshed with his orchestra and with a world of listeners.

He was, after all, the composer of “Solitude,” and of so many other works (“In a Sentimental Mood,” “Dusk,” “The Single Petal of a Rose”) that feed into a quintessence of aloneness, however little the most expansive reaches of his music—the fusion of multiple and sometimes abrasive textures and styles, the constant reaching across racial and social and national boundaries—seem to speak of isolation. Quite the contrary: his music is unimaginable without the voices of which it is made. “Ellington” is of necessity shorthand for Billy Strayhorn and Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams and Bubber Miley, Paul Gonsalves and Ivie Anderson and Harry Carney and Ray Nance and a hundred others. These most extravagant individualities were somehow fused in an unmistakable, utterly personal sound.

His music attains self-expression through the expression of selves. Voices contest, cajole, regret, argue, instruct, protest, entreat, give praise: not programmatic description but actual speech, captured in the moment. In every ensemble one hears the separate voices, and at the same time senses the enormous ear tuned in to all of them. Hodges and Carney and the rest are not simply the people who play Ellington’s music; they are the music, as in one way or another he reiterated countless times, usually in some variation of the formula “My band is my instrument.”1 Billy Strayhorn, who as pianist, arranger, and composer had been deeply involved in Ellington’s music since 1939, gave this notion definitive articulation: “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 like to call the Ellington Effect.”2

Although I have been listening to Ellington’s music for almost as many years as he spent recording it, I feel far from grasping its totality. He was responsible for thousands of compositions (many, from the late 1930s to the late 1960s, in collaboration with Strayhorn), and constantly reworked and rearranged many of those compositions. It is easy to become engaged with one or another period (the late 1930s, say, or the early 1960s) and temporarily forget the others, from the Cotton Club in the mid-1920s to the final works of the early 1970s. If he weathered many different fashions, it was not by following them but by becoming more himself. To go from “Reminiscing in Tempo”—the extended lyrical piece, released on four 78s, that in 1935 pushed radically against marketplace limits on the length and form of jazz recordings—to The River, his 1970 ballet suite (not released until 1989), is to register a continuity of creative impulse seizing every opportunity to expand and experiment.

  1. 1

    There was of course another side to this collaborative process, and more than one Ellington band member would express regret at not sharing in the profits from this or that motif that Ellington had so artfully incorporated into his copyrighted compositions. On the other hand, the fusing and completing force in the process was always Ellington’s, and it is hard to imagine the works as we know them arising in any other way. Even Strayhorn—who had his own issues about the degree to which he was credited for his work with Ellington, in one of the most intricately intermeshed artistic collaborations of the twentieth century—acknowledged as much: “The proof is that these people don’t go somewhere else and write beautiful music. You don’t hear anything else from them. You do from Ellington.”

  2. 2

    Down Beat, November 5, 1952; reprinted in The Duke Ellington Reader, edited by Mark Tucker (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 270. Tucker’s anthology is an indispensable and endlessly entertaining sourcebook.

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