Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Ellington

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Ellington

Article excerpt

Ellington

Terry Teachout is a remarkable man of letters whose interest in the arts is multi-directed. Officially he serves as drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and has reported on theater performances all over the country. For Commentary, he writes a regular column about music and musicians. His literary and biographical savvy was shown in an excellent biography of H. L. Mencken (The Skeptic), a small book on George Balanchine, and a delightful memoir of growing up in a small town, City Limits. More recently he has turned his attention to jazz, with satisfyingly full biographies of Louis Armstrong (Pops), and now Duke Ellington. He has also been a hands-on musician, playing string bass as a young man in a country music group. My acquaintance with his work began when I came across a profile of Woody Herman, who led the great swing band of my youth. Teachout wrote about the last days of the Herman band, with its leader ill, financially strapped, and surrounded by musicians many of whom didn't know the great records of their predecessors from the first and second Herman Herd of the middle 1940s. Teachout's writing is filled with buoyancy, with deep knowledge of his subjects, a useful wit, and an omnivorous memory-in his ear as well as his mind. It seems inevitable then that he would turn to Ellington, the most important jazz composer of the twentieth century and a person of intense aspirations and rich achievement, someone whose life scarcely took second place to the music he wrote and the musicians he led.1

There has been an enormous amount of writing about Ellington since his death in 1974, all sorts of testimonies from musicians, more than one biography, and critically focused analyses of his compositional structures. In an Afterword, Teachout makes clear what his book is: "Not so much a work of scholarship as an act of synthesis, a narrative biography substantially based on the words of academic scholars and other researchers." If he downplays the book as scholarship, his own source notes, presented in most full detail, come to almost 100 pages. The few extended descriptions of pieces, as with "East St. Louis ToodleO" and "Ko-Ko," are subordinated to the ongoing narrative, but they show what he is capable of doing if he chooses to do it. He brings to the subject, along with careful delineation of the music and musicians, a stylish verve, as when he refers to an early piece, "The Mooche" (1927), as being marked by the muted trumpeter Bubber Miley's "foul growling"; or, when speaking of the great band of 1940-42 he notes, apropos of the alto sax man Johnny Hodges, "In any other band, Hodges would have been the undisputed star of the show, but the entire Ellington band was a murderer's row of soloists, each of whom was determined to rise to the occasion." Hodges' companion in the sax section, the tenor man Ben Webster, is described as "an enthusiastic and inspirational ensemble player" who "hit the bull's eye whenever he stood up to solo," as in the "damn-the-torpedoes swinger 'Cotton Tail.'" The drummer Sonny Greer ("consistently underrated" says Teachout accurately) supplies a "propulsive rhythmic impetus that turned every up-tempo tune into a stampede." There is a freshness and exuberance about Teachout's language that permeates the book and makes it such a pleasure to read.

The circumstances of Ellington's upbringing and his entrance into the musical world are familiar, and Teachout attends carefully to his middle-class family, one of the light-skinned black bourgeoisie in the U Street/Shaw district of Washington. Ellington's impulse toward becoming, in Teachout's words, an elegant, cultivated gentleman would be importantly furthered by his association with Irving Mills, the canny manager of Ellington's operation from the late 1920s until the Second World War. Mills's marketing idea was to present the Duke as a different kind of black man, "fine-spoken and expensively tailored," someone whom "broad-minded white folk" could accept. …

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