The impact, influence and sheer longevity of Duke Ellington's career is astonishing, rivaled only by Louis Armstrong's. From his first recordings in 1924 until his last at Georgetown University in 1974 just three months before his death, Ellington was essentially responsible for creating a national highway system of jazz. Thanks to the trails he blazed, other bands, arrangers and soloists developed the music along his roadways with enormous success. He also smashed through the commercial ceiling, making jazz viable as swing dance music and marketable to all audiences. [Photo above of Terry Teachout]
Terry Teachout's new biography, Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham), sums up Ellington's life and contributions crisply and exquisitely. But unlike many writers of biographies who back-up the truck and dump everything in there or fall short in the storytelling department, Terry does a miraculous job weaving together facts and criticism to produce probably the finest biography we'll ever see of Ellington.
And here's what makes Terry's work even more astonishing. The book—which was begun right after he completed Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong—was written while working as the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, writing the paper's Sightings column, crafting arts criticism for Commentary, writing Satchmo at the Waldorf (a one-man play) and the libretto for The King's Man, which had its premiere on Oct. 11. I'm sure I'm leaving a few other things out.
JazzWax: What strategies did Ellington use to retain band members once he carefully selected them?
Terry Teachout: He paid them well—better than any other black bandleader of his generation. He also wrote music that was custom-tailored to show off their individual talents to the best possible effect. For the most part, it really was as simple as that. In addition, though, he cast a blind eye on the bad behavior of the various drug addicts and alcoholics who passed through the band, Paul Gonsalves in particular. And he was also a damned good flatterer.
JW: What does Ellington’s prodigious sex life say about him? That he was a user who got satisfaction out of hurting women emotionally? Or was sex just so available that he found it a release from the pressure he was under?
TT: That’s one of the most complicated questions facing any Ellington biographer, and I’m not sure that it can be answered definitively. Two points come immediately to mind, though. The first is that his sexual relationships with women inspired him as a composer. He said so on many occasions, often enough that I think he should be taken at his word. The second is that he was wary of women. Yes, he liked them, but he also distrusted them—and seeing as how his wife slashed his face with a razor when she found out in the 1920s that he was being unfaithful to her, it’s not hard to understand why he would have come to view women as a group with a certain suspicion. Ellington once said that women “are the pursuers, they’re the huntresses.” I suspect that remark sums up his feelings about them as well as anything.
JW: Did the band ever become just a job for Ellington, a means to stay solvent? By the '50s, he seemed bored.
TT: I’m sure there were stretches of time when keeping the band afloat was a chore, but it was also an inspiration—ever and always. In any case, Ellington was unable to function effectively as a composer without the constant presence of his band. He wasn’t the kind of conservatory-trained musician who could sit down and write out a piece from start to finish. His compositional process was experimental and improvisational, and the band was his traveling laboratory. That’s why he put up with the sometimes painful burden of leading it all the year round. He had to.
JW: What did Ellington really think of Count Basie? Did he admire him or did he find Basie's music too simplistic and gimmicky?
TT: He loved Basie’s music, perhaps in part because he heard in it an elemental simplicity, an irreducible bluesiness, that wasn’t within his own grasp. This isn’t to say that he envied Basie. Ellington was very happy with who he was and what he did. But you can appreciate a different kind of creative artist who’s able to do something you can’t do, and I think maybe that’s how Ellington felt at bottom about Basie and his band.
JW: Given all that you've learned about Ellington, did you wind up liking him more or less than when you started? Did you develop a fresh appreciation for his music?
TT: I wouldn’t put it that way. I think it would be more on the mark to say that I came away from the experience of writing Duke with a keener appreciation of Elllington the man. He wasn’t “likable” in the way that Louis Armstrong, the subject of my last book, was—Ellington was far too complicated a person for that. Too distant, too sphinxlike. Charismatic, yes, but everybody who was close to Ellington agreed that he was in some fundamental sense unknowable. And that’s the way he wanted it. [Photo above of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn by Herman Leonard Photography LLC/CTSImages]
As for his music, writing Duke introduced me to specific works by Ellington that I hadn’t heard before I started writing the book, but it didn’t make me love his music as a whole any more. I mean, I already loved it going in and had ever since I was a kid. I did, however, come to understand his compositional process more fully by studying and analyzing the music in a systematic way.
JW: What are your three favorite little-known Ellington albums and why?
TT: Remember that most of Ellington’s recording career predates the invention of the LP in 1948. For me, his supreme achievements as a composer are the 78s of the 1930s and 1940s, which weren’t released in album form until much later on. That said, I do have a special liking for The Duke Plays Ellington, the 1953 trio album for Capitol in which he recorded a dozen pieces composed by himself, Billy Strayhorn and Mercer Ellington. It was the first time on record that he displayed his pianism at such revealing length—no band, just bass and drums.
I also think that Afro-Bossa, his 1963 debut album for Reprise, is critically underrated and tends to get overlooked.
And of course I adore …And His Mother Called Him Bill, the 1967 tribute album devoted exclusively to original compositions by Billy Strayhorn—Ellington’s great and insufficiently appreciated collaborator.
On second thought, I guess …And His Mother Called Him Bill is pretty well known these days, so allow me instead to cite another Reprise album from the 1960s—the collection of songs from the soundtrack of Mary Poppins, most of which were arranged by Strayhorn. Very unlikely fare for a jazz band, but it’s quite magical.
JazzWax note: If you're in New York this Monday evening (Oct. 21), come over to Barnes & Noble at 150 East 86th St. Starting at 7 p.m., I'll be talking about the book with Terry Teachout, who will sign store-purchased copies of Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington after our chat.
JazzWax pages: You'll find Terry Teachout's Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham) here.
JazzWax clips: Here's Duke Ellington in 1967 in trio setting with John Lamb (b) and Rufus Jones (dr) in Denmark...
Here's Paul Gonsalves playing Chelsea Bridge...
Here's Sophisticated Lady with Harry Carney on baritone sax...