Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Sharp-Looking Gentleman of Music – Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington

On the inside page of Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham Books), opposite the title page, is a photograph of the jazz composer/pianist looking in a mirror as he adjusts a bow tie that adorns his tuxedo. It was taken in London in 1958, quite possibly in his room at one of the many hotels in which he lived while on tour. In many ways, the photograph represents the familiar and mysterious qualities of the famous composer: a sharp-looking gentleman of music; a charismatic band leader getting ready for another event where he’s the most important man in the room. For author Terry Teachout, the picture of Ellington looking into the mirror begs the question, “Who Are You?” And for the next 360 pages, Teachout attempts to answer it. But his subject is elusive, a character in music history with a significant body of work, hundreds of recordings and with a reputation beyond dispute. As history has taught us, the name Duke Ellington weighs large to every serious lover of jazz. His music continues to be heard on recordings, played in concert halls and clubs around the world. But as Terry Teachout surmises, “Everyone knows him; yet no one knows him. That was the way he wanted it.” Teachout’s purpose with this new biography seeks to reveal the mask of Duke Ellington. He does his scholarly best to collect, synthesis and deduce from a ton of information that defined Ellington such as, how he treated his family, friends and band members. It’s a book rich in detail with some extraordinary passages about Ellington’s music that had me reaching into my collection within a few chapters. Teachout’s critical assessment of Ellington’s music within the context of his search for the man stands as a juxtaposition to what we generally know about Duke. It is for this reason alone that I highly recommend it even to the most informed music fan.

Author Terry Teachout
Teachout tells the story of Edward Kennedy Ellington (1899–1974) in chronological order without the dryness of a long-winded history book. His prose is straight and to the point with exceptional vocabulary. (I had a dictionary beside me at all times) Another strength of the book is Teachout’s critical evaluation of the music. Since Ellington had little formal training in composition, his music evolves during his lifetime and the great news is that most of it is still available to be heard. For Teachout, much of the secrets behind the composer naturally lie in his compositions. Music was his “mistress” as Ellington proudly admitted in his own autobiography. But for Teachout, who often refers to the memoir to point out Duke’s embellished stories and lack of detail, you know less about Ellington because he wasn’t interested in revealing anything about himself. And when he did, the composer often couched it in poetic metaphor to keep you guessing. For Teachout, Ellington created his own public image, one that appeared sophisticated, intelligent and classy. But as Teachout states “Ellington kept no diaries and almost never wrote personal letters, and the mask of smiling, noncommittal urbanity that he showed to the world was firmly in place by the time he gave his earliest surviving interviews, which date from 1930.” Ellington presented himself as a “man of distinction” and frankly it worked.

Teachout takes considerable time to embellish his notions of who Ellington was by identifying his quirks (Ellington was highly superstitious) with a balanced approach to his relationships with women. Ellington loved women and women loved him. They were entranced by his good looks, his charm and his way with words. As Teachout retells it from Ellington’s long time manager Irving Mills, “He always had a woman, always kept a woman here, kept a woman there, always had somebody.” Fortunately, Teachout identifies many of these women, including Ellington’s wife Edna, his mistress Ivie and a few short-term relationships along the way. Ellington was certainly a man who understood his needs, and his desire for female company was only second to his hunger to compose. Of which he did constantly. Ellington wasn’t the most skilled composer in music, but he was good at stealing musical ideas from his players. According to Teachout, he had a remarkable talent for remembering solos from Johnny Hodges, for example, one night and coming up with a completed song based on that solo the next day. And while he rarely credited his players [much to their chagrin] for these tunes, he began to build a body of work from the early 1930s until his death in 1974. Teachout goes to great lengths to evaluate Ellington’s work in this context that makes for some great reading and, if you take the time, listening.

Duke Ellington, looking sharp, in 1958
Consider this passage about one of Ellington’s most famous songs, “Mood Indigo” written in and recorded in 1930. “A nocturne…[that] opens with a three-part chorale intoned by muted trumpet, muted trombone, and low-register clarinet…then Barney Bigard (clarinet) steps out from the ensemble back by the tick tock strokes of Fred Guy’s banjo and the steady walk of the rest of the rhythm section. Arthur Whetsel (trumpet) plays a delicate solo and Ellington (piano) ripples through a four bar piano interlude, after which the chorale is repeated as the record spins to a close…it is as simple and unforgettable as a proverb.” Throughout the book, Teachout maintains a healthy respect for his subject, judging only the music and based on his research, he tries to unveil the identity of the man behind the mask. This academic approach proves beneficial to the reader. I was constantly impressed by Teachout’s balanced observations about his subject, fed by a love for his music and the man’s complex character. For instance, in the chapter about the much-loved Blanton-Webster Band of 1939-1940, led by Ellington, he writes, “…purely musical analysis alone cannot explain the Ellington sound, since the inspirations for so many of his compositions were extramusical.” In some ways Ellington’s own descriptions of his songs were diversions. As Teachout relates the “fable” about “Mood Indigo” as told by Ellington, “It’s just a little story about a little girl and little boy. They’re about eight and the little girl loves the little boy. They never speak of it, of course, but she just likes the way he wears his hat. Every day he comes by her house at a certain time and she sits in her window and waits…then one day he doesn’t come.”

It’s a nice story. But Teachout doesn’t allow himself to be seduced by his subject’s charm. He considers Ellington’s style as something rooted in “his memories of nonmusical sounds…likely to find their way into his scores…[but] how he did it was his secret.” That last point is a prominent unresolved theme in the entire biography either because Teachout can’t explain it, or simply because the music speaks to him, like it speaks to all of us, only in a non-verbal, emotional way and making descriptive notes futile (unless it’s on technical terms).  Nevertheless, I do recommend this excellent portrait of an artist who’s character is still worthy of study after dozens of biographies, essays, liner notes and first person memories have graced the public over the years. While Teachout spends a significant time describing the life and times of Ellington and his band from the 1920s and into the early 1960s, he shrinks the last seven years of Ellington’s life into a 30-page chapter called, “Alone in a Crowd.” I felt shortchanged as a reader, but perhaps because I was so impressed by Teachout’s prose that I didn’t want the story to end. Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington features a list of Fifty Key Recordings selected by Teachout, a substantive bibliography and source notes plus an index. His scholarly efforts have significantly benefited the music world and, without question, our understanding of Ellington’s art.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra.

No comments:

Post a Comment