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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.

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington, Los Angeles, 1945

Even the mid-1950s period that Cohen describes as his commercial and aesthetic “nadir”—happy, it must be said, is the artist whose low point is of such short duration—generated some remarkable music and was followed by a renewal cut short only by his death in 1974. Albums like Afro-Bossa (1962), The Far East Suite (1966),…And His Mother Called Him Bill (1967), New Orleans Suite (1971), and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (1971, released 1975) exemplify the riches of this last period without exhausting them.

One of the many valuable aspects of Duke Ellington’s America is the ample space it gives to these later decades, correcting a long-standing tendency to focus more on the work of the 1930s and (especially) the 1940s. A generation of listeners understandably overwhelmed by the 1940–1942 recordings (featuring Jimmy Blanton on bass and Ben Webster on tenor sax, and marking the emergence of Billy Strayhorn as Ellington’s intimate collaborator) made them a yardstick by which his subsequent work was sometimes found wanting.3 It is hard to argue with the perfection of “Concerto for Cootie,” “Harlem Airshaft,” “Pitter Panther Patter,” and so many others from a moment when Ellington’s popularity and artistic innovation were both at a peak; but there is no need to reduce the rest of his career to an afterthought.

His accomplishment—everything it had taken to shape the sound of his orchestra and market that sound as both art and popular music—becomes all the more extraordinary when one traces, with Cohen, the extreme deliberateness with which Ellington managed his career. Nothing seems fortuitous. Even apparent compromises or trade-offs can be read as artful accommodations leading to eventual triumphs. The book makes nuanced sense of the hard choices at every turn, in years when it often fell to Ellington to pioneer new audiences and new venues, and to insist on a level of dignity rarely accorded to African-American artists.

The nuance is especially valuable in the account of Ellington’s long and enigmatic relationship with Irving Mills, his manager, publisher, and business partner from 1926 to 1939, a man who, in Cohen’s words, “with Ellington’s knowledge and tacit approval…made millions of dollars during ensuing decades by putting his name to dozens of Ellington’s compositions of the 1920s and 1930s that he almost certainly did not help write.” Despite Mills’s hogging of credits and disproportionate profit share, Ellington (even after breaking up the partnership in 1939) never publicly criticized Mills, and later wrote:

In spite of how much he made on me, I respected the way he had operated. He had preserved the dignity of my name. Duke Ellington has an unblemished image, and that is the most anybody can do for anybody.

For Cohen, Mills played the crucial role in defining the public’s perception of Duke Ellington: as an artist of singular genius and global significance, distinct from the vulgar and racially stereotyped associations of “jazz music.” Ellington’s Cotton Club “jungle music” had made his reputation, and as late as 1931 he was being quoted in a Mills Music handbook on the subject of the “weird, queer effects of primitive Negro melodies.” But Mills’s publicity gradually moved away from that approach, emphasizing not so much the primitive and exotic as the complex and modern:

Only the important things in art and life merit serious discussion and create critical controversy…. Whatever your musical opinion of this latest work in the modern idiom created by Duke Ellington—trailblazer in the newest music—it will not be indifferent!

Mills’s positioning of Ellington as serious artist was amplified when a hugely successful tour of England in 1933 elicited critical comparisons ranging from Liszt and English madrigals to Ravel and Schoenberg. This foreign praise began to filter back into American newspapers, until before long the Memphis Scimitar, for instance, was writing of the “unorthodox, frenzied jazz” of “this negro Stravinsky.”

Cohen has found no documentation to show how much Ellington participated in shaping these campaigns. As immensely valuable as it was for him to be identified as an artist of unique genius, his definitions of his art were often quite different, and certainly had little to do with Liszt or madrigals. From the start he often distanced himself from the rubric of jazz (as later from swing), preferring to be considered “beyond category.” But he showed little inclination to associate himself with the supposed prestige of European traditions. In a 1934 interview he declared: “You can’t stay in the European conservatory and play the negro music…. Negro music is what we are working on. Not as a component of jazz, but as a definite unadulterated musical entity.” He returned to the same theme many times, remarking in 1938: “There is something lasting…to be obtained from the Negro idiom of music…. Negro music has color, harmony, melody, and rhythm. It’s what I’m most interested in.” And again in 1939: “Our music is always intended to be definitely and purely racial…. Those things which we have to say, we try to express musically with the greatest possible degree of freedom of inspiration and individuality.” If people heard Schoenbergian echoes in his music, he ventured to suggest, they were projecting out of their own “subconscious activity.”

He pushed toward longer, more ambitious works aimed more at the concert hall than the dance floor. Here, record company executives and music critics—and sometimes audiences—alike proved resistant. When Ellington, at his epochal first Carnegie Hall concert in January 1943, presented the premiere of a forty-five-minute version of his suite Black, Brown and Beige: A Tone Parallel of the Negro in America, the response was disappointing. Paul Bowles called it “formless and meaningless,” adding that “the whole attempt to fuse jazz as a form with art music should be discouraged”; John Hammond felt that “by becoming more complex he has robbed jazz of most of its basic virtue and lost contact with his audience.” The harsh reaction, and the suggestion that he should stick to the (presumably simpler) music he excelled at, was a bitter experience for Ellington; he never recorded the complete work, which had been in process for many years, and even when he recorded an album of the music in 1958 (featuring Mahalia Jackson’s magnificent rendition of “Come Sunday”) he included only a portion of it.

Even the longer Carnegie Hall version failed, as Cohen explains, to convey the themes sketched in Ellington’s outline of Black, Brown and Beige. Based, Ellington said, on his study of some eight hundred volumes on “Negro culture and its evolution,” the work was meant to embrace black history from Africa to modern America, from ancient cultures—

In the kingdom of Songhay
There flourished a system of agriculture, law,
Literature, music, natural sciences, medicine

to contemporary Harlem:

Who brought the dope
And made a rope
Of it, to hang you
In your misery…
And Harlem…
How’d you come to be
Permitted
In a land that’s free?

Along the way there were analyses of the corrosive effects of slavery on slaves and masters alike—“The master carried his fear with him”—and evocations of the ambiguous messages of the white man’s religion. (Ellington interpolated passages from the Book of Proverbs, his favorite book of the Bible: “When pride cometh, then cometh shame;/But with the lowly is wisdom.”) In a way that would have astonished most of the Carnegie Hall audience in 1943, he praised the slave rebellions of the “mighty men of action” Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey.

Little of this material is reflected in Black, Brown and Beige as performed or recorded. Most revealing is a rare moment of self-doubt:

And so, your song has stirred the souls
Of men in strange and distant places…
But did it ever speak to them
Of what you really are?…
How could they ever fail to hear
The hurt and pain and anguish
Of those who travel dark, lone ways
The soul in them to languish?
And was the picture true
Of you? The camera eye in focus…
Or was it all a sorry bit
Of ofay hocus-pocus?

The painful questioning of the image of him that the world saw is a rare breach of Ellington’s extraordinary self-control. For Cohen the doubts and conflicts surrounding Black, Brown and Beige expose pain and anger concealed behind his reserve, a reserve itself masked always by seemingly effortless eloquence and humor. It is true that the surviving music of the “tone parallel” to the history of the Negro seems to gesture toward another work not quite embodied, a work of overwhelming aspiration and power. Yet it is not always the finished and perfected works that have the deepest influence. In its apparently incomplete form Black, Brown and Beige seems all the same indispensable and pervasive, clearing a space for the expression of vast stretches of time and history.

With the rapid decline of the big band era after World War II, Ellington’s days as a hit parade attraction were over. What followed—the way he sustained his orchestra in lean times and continued to compose and record exactly as he intended—turns out to be equally extraordinary. The musical sensation of the mid-1920s, variously described as “Harlem’s Aristocrat of Jazz” or (bizarrely) “the Rudy Vallee of the colored race,” performing at the Cotton Club for an audience including at times F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Gershwin (the latter credited with coining the phrase “jungle music”), was still, almost half a century later, pushing his music in surprising directions (listen to “Heaven” from 1969 or “Neo-Creole” from 1971), having outlived his original audiences as well as his original critics.

Ellington cared for his band as a musician cares for his voice or hands, and kept it together fifty-two weeks a year until almost the end. He explained that he needed the band permanently available so he could hear how his music sounded: “To me, music is a hobby. That is why I have to have a band. It is a sort of vanity. As soon as I hear a piece, I have to hear it played.” Sometimes he called it an addiction. His energies were directed increasingly to that end—that he could compose something at three in the morning and hear it played later the same morning. To attain that luxury, he was prepared to work ceaselessly and for a fraction of the financial rewards that could have been his.

But then Ellington, it appears, was not all that interested in money. In a passage toward the end of Music Is My Mistress (1973)—an upbeat, generous, and for the most part deliberately unrevealing book—he gives at last a hint of the more somber assumptions underlying his art:

After people have destroyed all people everywhere, I see heaping mounds of money strewn over the earth, floating on and sinking into the sea…. Money and stink, the stink of dung, the stink of money, so foul that in order for the flowers to get a breath of fresh air, the winds will come together and whip the sea into a rage, and blow across the land. Then the green leaves of trees, and grass, will give up their chlorophyll, so that the sea, the wind, the beasts, and the birds will play and sing Nature’s old, sweet melody and rhythm. But since you are people, you will not, unfortunately, be here to hear it.

Yet little as he cared for commerce, he valued money as a means to retain the zone of freedom he had established—a zone that amounted to an independent polity, in which all those around him were also taken care of. (Ellington, in Cohen’s summation, instead of enriching himself by investing his royalties and catering to nostalgia, “sought to support friends, family, and community, the fulltime touring of his orchestra, and, perhaps most importantly, his composing and his ability to hear his work immediately.”) His goals were achieved not through meticulously laid-out plans but through a kind of unrelenting energetic improvisation in the service of deeply held convictions, doing things at the last minute because it was always the last minute, finding time and space for more than would seem to fit into a life. In talking about the Sacred Concerts he once said: “Worship is a matter of profound intent. I tried to invite everybody. It’s very easy to misunderstand.” That phrase—“profound intent”—could well define the whole arc of his life.

  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.

  3. 3

    The complete master takes of the Blanton-Webster band have been reissued on Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band, 1940–1942 (RCA Victor, 2003). Beyond these, the line recordings collected in The Duke Box offer an expanded sampling of Ellington’s 1940s work.

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