Responses from the community of Ellington scholars and aficionados to Terry Teachout's Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington have been ambivalent, to say the least. This is surprising considering that Teachout worked so closely with quite a few of the more celebrated members of that community in researching the book and he is scrupulous in acknowledging sources.
The facts Mr Teachout assembled with the support of members of the Ellington community are not in doubt, however. Rather, where the difficulty arises is not the 'facts' about Ellington (and, let's be honest, actual 'facts'- in actual fact- are rather harder to come by than is popularly supposed and much of what passes for 'fact' is little more than opinion)but the emphasis some of these facts have been given and the way they have been pressed into the service of Mr Teachout's opinion.
The following review expresses very effectively the way many admirers of Ellington's work feel about this latest biography. The review is written by Bill McFadden, Editor of Ellingtonia, the Newsletter of The Duke Ellington Society, Inc, Washington DC.
Bill has graciously given me his permission to reproduce the review here.
Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout New York: Gotham (Penguin) Books, 2013
Reviewed by William McFadden
We Ellington/Strayhorn “true believers” are a hardy lot, able to withstand fact, criticism or conjecture where the Maestro is concerned. We are willing keepers of the flame, perfectly capable of burnishing the legend. Over the years, we’ve read the best and the worst about Duke, but we remain disinclined to interpret such infor- mation without taking into account social context, circumstantial nuance, and human nature. We refuse to indulge in denial. What we don’t want to read is old information which has been crafted to function as exposé. This is especially true when the discussion turns to the music.
Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington by arts critic and author, Terry Teachout attempts to venture beyond its subject’s carefully constructed, lifelong façade, but only succeeds at being the most unsettlingly harsh Ellington biography to join the ever-growing Ducal literary canon. Scholars and serious aficionados will find its contents disturbing. Those readers will doubtlessly remain puzzled as to why it was necessary to repackage published semi-petty swipes at Duke’s very character from some who were there, but mainly from those who were not. Some readers could easily conclude Duke Ellington, in today’s parlance, really wasn’t all that.
Not that the reader hasn’t been warned. Clues to the nature and scope of this biography are immediately found not only in its subtitle, A Life of . . . but also on the inner flap of its dust jacket: “. . . an impenetrably enigmatic personality whom no one, not even his closest friends, claimed to understand.” Mr. Teachout promises “. . . to uncover the facts about the public and private lives of Duke Ellington . . . Duke peels away countless layers of evasion and deception to tell the unvarnished truth about the creative genius . . .” The process of stripping varnish requires extreme abrasion combined with toxic solvents. It’s messy, dangerous and uncomfortable. Afterward, one might question whether it was worth all the trouble.
Perspective is established in Prologue: “Underneath his soigné exterior, Ellington was a self-centered hedonist who lived a nomadic existence in which everything was subordinated to his art—and, insofar as possible, his pleasure.” Uh-oh. A dissection of both man and music ensues, the chief criticism being that Duke was the embodiment of others’ influence and talent who was melodically incapable of becoming a popular songwriter in the ranks of Berlin, Porter, Arlen, Kern, and Rodgers. Similarly, the stubborn refusal to broaden his familiarity with formal composition styles and techniques kept him from successfully composing and performing the serious, extended works (a la Gershwin) to which he aspired, and in accordance with heightened public expectations of highbrow greatness stoked by Irving Mills.
In addition, the reader learns how Ellington’s textbook narcissism with its regal sense of entitlement was manifested in claiming work which was not his own, withholding publishers’ credit on many of his best-known compositions (“the dreaded medley”) from the musicians in his employ who originated the riffs or themes which formed their basis. And, he constantly borrowed from and recycled his own material. He was a chronic procrastinator in his work and a manipulator in his relationships, oblivious to any detrimental impact either had upon those who idolized him. He was a glutton for adulation, food and, especially, women—many, many women. Very well, we are not unfamiliar with this territory, but our memories cast it as rough going.
Mr. Teachout is an astute critic of discerning taste with a compelling, terse writing style. His approach to writing Duke consisted of combing virtually every article, treatise and tome pertaining to the topic, along with transcribed interviews (primarily orchestra members) from the Oral History American Archive at Yale University. Curiously, The New Yorker is cited most freqently, beginning with their columns on Harlem in the 1920s and continuing for the rest of the book. Time magazine is second, followed by The New York Times.
Don George’s Sweet Man (the sleaziest of all Ellington biographies) and James Lincoln Collier’s flawed Duke Ellington appear for some reason to be the primary literary references, supplemented with the writings of Gunther Schuller on jazz in general and Ellington/Strayhorn in particular. As a consequence, the book’s voice and tone emanate from a chorus of the aforementioned, joined by Whitney Balliett, Norman Granz, Stanley Dance, and Spike Hughes. The Upper East Side point of view can often be patrician. In a separate category, so to speak, Mercer’s Duke Ellington in Person and the memoirs of both Barney Bigard and Rex Stewart complement the voices of those band members airing past grievances and gripes.
Most of the book’s chapters invite argument. For instance, on the issue of composition credit and royalty payment we note that all of the tunes in dispute (Mood Indigo and Sophisticated Lady among others) were composed, recorded and published prior to 1940—the end of Duke’s “business arrangement” with the sympathetically portrayed Mills. Until then, the reality was that nothing from the Duke Ellington catalog was exempt from “Ellington-Mills” as the primary, if not only credit, a perpetually common practice in the music business. A contradictory final word, though, belongs to Mr. Strayhorn’s: “. . . these people don’t go somewhere else and write beautiful music. You don’t hear anything else from them. You do from Ellington.”
After 1940, however, Duke appropriated material from Billy Strayhorn, his own private formal musicianship and culture wing. For the highly sensitive Strays, it was callous, unfair treatment from his benefactor and collaborator. But Duke kept Billy, as others “in the palm of his hand,” crushing his protégé’s artistic development. By the time Billy begins receiving proper recognition, it’s too late—he’s consumed by alcoholism and depression. His untimely death “would thwart them once and for all,” meaning the boss, his women, and the organisation’s output. In other words, the well of creativity would rapidly dry. We do question how an “openly gay” individual could be forced to live and work “in the shadows behind the curtains,” while Mr. Teachout is coming to terms with “who wrote what?” The latter question was settled through the efforts of Walter Van de Leur in the 90s. The author then tells us that the question of Billy’s sexuality was answered in 1981. And? The reader must consult the author’s notes to discover this scoop was broken by none other than Don George.
Much is made of Ellington’s perceived lack of success with grand scale composition for stage, screen, concerts and records. Symbolic of this view is Duke’s alleged frustration over not bringing Black, Brown and Beige to full fruition, a constant reference point for noting the derivative elements of every tune analyzed in almost every chapter. Here too, the assertion is that Duke reached his (serious) musical nadir; he was creatively spent, totally dependent upon Billy for material. Other than the late career New Orleans Suite, the Sacred Concerts, and The River it primarily came from Strayhorn.
The composer similarly ignored the book/lyrics/score Broadway musical formula in My People, Beggar’s Holiday and A Drum is a Woman, hence another set of laid eggs. An entire chapter on Jump for Joy contains a back story on the communist influence in show business from the 1930s through the 1950s as evidenced by musicals celebrating labor and/or equal rights. It subtly implies that Ellington, despite his loathing of com- munism, was a patsy for the fellow travelers who financed and meddled with the Jump for Joy production.
A steady barrage of objections to Duke’s high living, voracious appetite, and pursuit of women is repeated throughout the narrative to the point where they smack of resentment. The final passages are replete with tawdry melodrama: “. . . one more musical trick tucked up his now-frayed sleeve.” and “At seventy-one, there was still life in the old boy yet.” Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn are reduced to pitiable caricatures.
We find later in the book that the only “breaking” information uncovered concerns Mr. Ellington, 70, and a Mr. Brown, 62, mixing it up backstage in 1969. Mr. Brown lost two front teeth in the fracas and immediately retired from music. The source is Duke’s Bones: Ellington’s Great Trombonists by Kurt Dietrich, Germany, 1995.
Duke is a commercial effort written for today’s era of the 24-hour news cycle, reality TV, devices and apps. It is chronicle in the manner of a program called Behind the Music which documents the rise and fall of recent pop stars. Duke’s points are made by cherry-picking untoward facts and quotations relevant to the target, and conforming to a set of biases, which are then packaged as a “fair and balanced” view.
Ultimately we are reminded of a television ‘special event’ from 1986, The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault, hosted by Geraldo Rivera. After weeks of fanfare and ballyhoo, Rivera and crew demolished a basement wall in Chicago on live TV in order to uncover the gangster’s secret crypt and the untold treasures contained within. A transfixed viewer nation watched as the debris was cleared to reveal—an empty room, save for some empty bottles, one of which Mr. Rivera proudly thrust toward the camera claiming that it once contained bootleg gin.
Terry Teachout, in mounting this formidable project, clearly believed he could finally jackhammer through the monolith of inscrutability that is Duke Ellington’s legend, only to realize it cannot be done. There is a sense of consternation and an undertone of frustration which the reader may find difficult to avoid. In the conclusion the author admits that Duke “is universally acknowledged as the greatest composer in the history of jazz . . . in the history of American music.” Additional encomiums speak to his band leading and piano mastery, and that he remains “an enduring exemplar of black accomplishments and pride.”
We sadly think of those whose only written exposure to Ellingtonia will be this volume, read on pads, tablets and smartphones. Many of us who have been around for a while are highly familiar with what was once contained in those unearthed dusty bottles; the acceptance and the moving on have long since taken place.