Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Duke, A Life of Duke Ellington

Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Duke, A Life of Duke Ellington

Article excerpt

DUKE, A Life of Duke Ellington. By Terry Teachout. NY: Gotham Books, 2013. ISBN 978-1-592-40749-1

More has been written about Duke Ellington than any other jazz figure, so it is remarkable that Terry Teachout has written a book that will be required reading on Ellington, along with Mark Tucker's Ellington, the Early Years (University of Illinois Press, 1991) and The Duke Ellington Reader (Oxford University Press, 1993), and Gunther Schuller's Early Jazz (Oxford University Press, 1968). The book's title DUKE, A Life of Duke Ellington is well chosen, because the main focus of the book is about Ellington's personality and character, set in a historical chronology of his band and the music, topics so well documented by a host of writers. For the most part, the author has wisely avoided music analysis and quotes Schuller and others when he writes about Ellington's music in the context of his narrative. The chapters are laid out in conventional chronological fashion, beginning with Ellington's youth in Washington, D.C., and ending in the early 1970s. The book has an appendix, a list of important recordings, a long section on source notes, and a general index. The author has done a good job of listing sources, found at the end of the book, but there are no endnote numbers in the text to connect with the sources, making it awkward for readers.

The Prologue to the book is the most important chapter, setting the tone and objectives of his writing, and it serves as a summary of Ellington's behavior, his relationships, and his unorthodox way of composing, with a critical assessment of his shortcomings and limitations in composing. Teachout digs more deeply into his subject than most writers, who are content to report on Ellington's great fame, the band travels, lists of recordings, and anecdotes. The brief "Afterword" is a kind of bookend, precisely describing what Teachout is striving to achieve in the book; "DUKE ... is not so much a work of scholarship as an act of synthesis, a narrative biography that is substantially based on the work of academic scholars and other researchers who in recent years have unearthed a wealth of new information about Duke Ellington and his colleagues." DUKE could not have been written until years after the death of Ellington, because of his candid writing about Ellington's character, his shortcomings, and sometimes troubled relationships with his musicians. Ellington's huge reputation and successful career left thousands of devoted listeners, performing musicians and writers who were often careful not to be critical.

A noteworthy aspect of Teachout's book is the detail in which he describes how Ellington composed with his band in rehearsal, playing short phrases and interacting with them to get the sound he wanted. His lack of formal music training in harmony and composition led partly to Ellington's unorthodox way of working, with interesting results. Teachout skillfully connects his writing on Ellington's personal relationships and his attitude towards music to the way in which he composed, giving us a greater insight into the large body of Ellington's music. With so many of the musicians staying in the band for years, it has always been understood that Ellington's was a unique 'family' band, at least up until the 1960s. Therefore, it should be no surprise that his music making was shared in a real sense, even if the composer was Duke Ellington. …

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