According to the renowned jazz musician Duke Ellington, good luck stems from “being at the right place at the right time, doing the right things before the right people.” It’s tricky to arrange all four things at once—in fact, songs have been written about getting some of these factors right, while messing up others.
The new Ellington bio by Terry Teachout, a critic at the Wall Street Journal (Teachout has also written a book on Louis Armstrong), shows a man capable of aligning the stars on a regular basis…with talent, charm and a little help from his friends.
Ellington grew up in the nation’s capital, and much has been made of his family background. Jelly Roll Morton cut his teeth playing in brothels in New Orleans; in contrast, Ellington’s parents were relatively well-off (for African Americans in the early 1900s), and their son played at snazzy parties around DC in “society bands.” Some art may be born from the need to escape poverty but, luckily, poverty is not a necessity for artistic creation.
Ellington moved to Harlem—the right place—from DC, looking for a hot new scene. In 1926, he hooked up with Irving Mills, one of the right people, who owned a music publishing company and who possessed a knack for finding talented jazz musicians. Mills and Ellington teamed for 13 years, a time in which Mills exploited the artist’s talent but also promoted him to the press and published his compositions, making sure that the two shared co-writing credits on a lot of tracks that became standards. Ellington started playing at the Cotton Club (with Mills’ help) in 1927, the year, Teachout writes, that “100 million records were sold in America.”(The right time.)
The Cotton Club: owned by gangsters, a place where wealthy whites came to expose themselves to diversity in contained, unthreatening doses. According to Howard “Stretch” Johnson, a dancer who worked at the club, it functioned “to appease the appetite for a certain type of black performance, the smiling black, the shuffling black…”
Ellington provided entertainment; he also used his time to grow as an artist: “He used to set us on the stand and pay us union scale, maybe for five hours, just to help him formulate chords,” said Freddie Jenkins, a trumpeter.
Soon, the press began to embrace Ellington. The New Yorker’s nightlife writer, “Lipstick,” described the Duke’s music as “barbaric and rhythmic and brassy as jazz ought to be…mellow as music ought to be…and…all too much for an impressionable girl.” CBS radio broadcast Ellington’s Cotton Club performances all over the country, likely overwhelming “impressionable” ladies from coast to coast. Ellington hit the studio too, and he toured heavily.
Teachout adeptly balances several aspects of Ellington’s world in his book. First: Ellington’s personal history—especially the way he tried to recreate the world of his parents—and his relationships with women. Sometimes the author spends a little too long speculating about the looks of Ellington’s various lovers.
Simultaneously, Teachout explores a larger history of race relations in America. Ellington battled against racist perceptions of black musicians, but he also played a certain role—always smooth, charming and well-dressed. With Mills’ assistance, Ellington worked to be “a different kind of black man, fine-spoken and expensively tailored, a fellow whom broad-minded white folks could imagine introducing to their friends, even if they might not care to bring him home to meet their wives.” Ellington didn’t see much value in political protest, and when the Civil Rights movement began, he didn’t always agree with its methods. (“The only people who did good out of the goddamn parade [Martin Luther King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom] was the people who owned business in Washington, the hotels,” said Ellington.)
Ellington always made explicit his mission to show black musicians as capable as white ones—not just objects of fascination, but creators of great art—and he expressed a desire to capture essential aspects of black life in his music.
Teachout does not shy from discussing that music in technical detail. “The Hot Bach,” as The New Yorker dubbed Ellington, “wrote or co-wrote most of the songs that his musicians played,” a rarity back in the day, and “his approach to form was…unconventional.” The song “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” Teachout tells us, ignores common tropes like solos, or even themes. It’s merely riffs, “tossed back and forth.” Another tune, “Rude Interlude,” earned praise from Jelly Roll Morton, who said begrudgingly of Ellington, “he wasn’t afraid to experiment” (despite all those stuffy society parties).
Ellington, Teachout writes, would “treat the sections of his compositions as if they were separate pieces in a mosaic that could be rearranged at will.” Lyrics came to him differently as well. “Most tune writers wrote the melody first…Duke wrote the chords and that was that…gradually, through some form of musical osmosis, the words fell in the right places and lo!...we had a song,” said Don George, fellow lyricist.
Maybe listeners didn’t know about the quirks of Ellington’s compositional techniques, but they could hear differences in his music if they paid attention. The song “Black and Tan Fantasy,” writes Teachout, possessed “a near-pictorial quality” that “bore little resemblance to the extroverted dance music that most other jazz musicians were performing in 1927.”
“Every musician has his favorite licks,” said Ellington, “and you gotta write to them.” He tried to cater to his players, but place them in a new context, often changing the lead in his horn sections and experimenting with unusual instrument groupings. Just like James Brown or Marvin Gaye, Ellington frequently stole ideas from his instrumentalists who, Teachout writes, “did not always receive credit—or royalties.” It’s certainly not a fair practice, but we often find it correlated with greatness.
Not all listeners appreciated Ellington’s innovation as fully as Mr. Morton. Ellington often tried to escape the constraints of form—and even of technology, since you couldn’t fit that much music on one side of a 78 rpm record—resulting in pieces like the lengthy, four-part, “Reminiscing in Tempo,” written after the death of his mother. Though proud of the work, Ellington soon stopped playing it. It seems critics weren’t on board.
The same goes for the famous “Black, Brown, Beige,” written in roughly six weeks and performed at Carnegie Hall. Some people called it a “jazz symphony,” but most of the establishment critics remained unimpressed, suggesting the piece could have benefitted from more than six weeks of work, and maybe some additional cohesion.
Despite these setbacks, Ellington continued to record, and his performance highlighted the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. Teachout writes that the musician Paul Desmond called it “the most honest statement that night,” and a new arrangement of “Diminuendo and Crescendo,” with a massive solo from saxophone player Paul Gonsalves, nearly caused “a full-scale riot”—no society party conventions here, just a lot of people dancing vigorously. Ellington graced the cover of Time Magazine in the same year. He died 18 years later, in 1974.
The trumpeter Clark Terry said of Ellington that he wanted “life and music to be in a state of becoming.” Never finished, complete, or over, always evolving and breaking through barriers made to contain it, thinking bigger—and differently. That meant writing a “jazz symphony” without “the elementary principles of symphonic musical organization” and continuing to pen musical suites even after critics dismissed the efforts. A little thing like cohesion wouldn’t prevent Ellington from diving into previously uncharted territory.
We still hear it in his music today. When asked to pick the one CD he would bring to a desert island, the New York Times critic Ben Ratliff replied, “Duke Ellington’s The Okeh Ellington.” Why? “It wakes me up to what’s possible.”
Elias Leight’s writing about books and music has appeared in Paste, The Atlantic, Splice Today, and Popmatters. He comes from Northampton, Massachusetts, and can be found at signothetimesblog.