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writing for godot

Duking It Out: New biography delivers the world of Ellington

Written by John Winters   
Wednesday, 01 January 2014 04:00
There’s no doubt Terry Teachout can bring historical characters to life. Anyone who’s seen his play, “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” or read “Pops,” his hugely regarded 2009 biography on Louis Armstrong can attest to this.

In “Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington” (Gotham, 483 pages), the veteran critic, musician and playwright has his work cut out for him. Ellington is more of an enigma than Armstrong, harder to penetrate, self-centered and a bit on the shady side. However, Teachout manages to turn in another bravura performance chronicling the life of the man he deems America’s greatest composer.

Ellington wrote or co-wrote more than 1,500 songs in his six decades of touring and recording, including stone-cold standards like “Take the A-Train,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got that Swing,” “Moon Indigo,” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” A larger than life presence, he was an integral part of the American musical landscape from the jazz age to the Nixon years, outlasting trends and scoring more comebacks than 2013 Patriots.

How did this man, a grandson of slaves, high school dropout, son of Washington’s U Street, and “somewhat better-than-average stride pianist largely devoid of formal musical training” scale such heights? Given that he was also short on melody-writing abilities and repeatedly failed at writing longer compositions, Ellington’s iconic status is more perplexing.

“Duke” provides the most comprehensive answer possible, as it details Ellington’s life and times, as well as his working methods, and the contributions of the talented men and women who created and played this timeless music. Always at center stage is the enigmatic man at the piano. Teachout weaves together biographical details with the aspects of Ellington’s personality that made him so compelling. Yes, he was charismatic, but he also hid his true self. “He talked not to explain himself but to conceal himself,” Teachout notes early on. And Ellington had a few skeletons that Teachout yanks out of the closet: womanizing and profligacy to name just two.

Yet, the best parts of “Duke” are when the author digs deep into the music. He points out that Ellington’s particular gifts were in harmonizing and orchestrating, and traces his roots back to the ragtime of his youth. “Most of the themes that he is known to have written himself… typically arise from and adumbrate their underlying harmonies rather than having a fully independent life of their own,” Teachout writes. Elsewhere, the author quotes the critic and musician Gunther Schuller, who said Ellington had achieved “the perfect balance between composition and improvisation,” and named this as the Duke’s greatest achievement.

Throughout, Teachout’s knowledge, interpretive skills and feel for the nuances of jazz are on display. It’s particularly effective in describing the arrival into Ellington’s life of musical wunderkind Billy Strayhorn, or when he takes a hard look at the composer’s triumph at Newport in 1956. The author also goes into great detail concerning Ellington’s working methods, which often included appropriating melodic phrases from his band members and using his compositional skills to build hit songs around them.

The life of Ellington has built-in drama by the score: his great moments often followed his lowest points. Teachout makes use of these dynamics to drive his narrative. Ellington was the jazz cat with nine lives, and “Duke” rides these waves like a great sax solo.

If there’s one thing I felt was missing throughout the book it was a visceral description of what made Ellington’s band so great. Hearing this music today (mp3s, no less) is no substitute for the group’s live presentations on those nights when everything was clicking. However, near the end of “Duke,” Teachout delivers the goods in the form of a quote by Norris Turney, who replaced Ellington’s legendary sax man Johnny Hodges in 1970: “When that band was really together, man, they really played. Such a sound you never heard before. I was in there… I’d be in that band with all the beautiful sounds floating around you – there was just nothing like it. I can’t explain it. It was the greatest experience of my life.”

“Duke,” shares the stories and performances that went in to creating those beautiful sounds.

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