Terry Teachout's "Duke"
I just finished Terry Teachout's Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington. It was a great read; crisp and lively with plenty of forward momentum. In other words, some nonfiction to not be afraid of. James Gavin's review in the NYT nails it:
The facts and stories he relates aren’t new, but rarely have they had such a compelling narrative flow or ring of reliability. As in his last book, “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong,” Teachout keeps his psychoanalyzing within safe limits; he contextualizes historically without sounding contrived, and honors his subject’s musical achievements through just the right amount of close analysis.Two main themes stood out for me. The first is Ellington's somewhat failed attempts to create long form compositions that would rival Gershwin and other "serious" composers. Teachout describes how Ellington never put in the time and work needed to learn how to and create complex, coherent longer works. All of his formal and sonic innovations found their best expression in three minute songs. I think that instead of comparing against classical composers we should say that Ellington was like other giants of 20th century popular music: He developed his sound by working within the limitations of the recording technology of the time, as well the demands of being on the road all the time. No need to judge against Stravinsky. Compare with the Beatles, great artists whose masterpieces were also discrete three minute pieces.
The other is that Ellington was a "race man" of the type that existed before Malcolm X, the 60s, and the Black Power movement. Nothing signifies this more than the fact that Ellington wore his hair straightened in a conk, a look that was to become taboo for men in the new era of Black consciousness. Born in 1899, he grew up in the Washington D.C. black middle class of the early 20th century, which had its own notions of internal hierarchy, sometimes even based on skin color.
Ironically, while Duke's early music was promoted as "jungle music," Duke himself was ever vigilant in being seen as a "credit" to the African American people. To this end, he hired the powerhouse manager Irving Mills to craft his public image as a serious artist, which he was. He was also a serious womanizer and hedonist, unfaithful to his wife who he married young and never divorced, to say nothing of the other women he cohabitated with over the years. In that day and age such things could be kept out of the media. As with JFK, it was the public persona, not the private actions, that mattered most.
But it wasn't all about image. The image was a protective layer. Ellington came to dislike the term jazz, but insisted without ceasing that all of his work was intended to be a testimony to the Black or Negro experience in America. It was his firm conviction that the Black contribution to American culture was indispensable; at once unique and central to its character. He was right.
The third main theme revolves around Ellington's compositional methods, which often involved grabbing the good melodic bits from his band members' improvised solos and turning them into songs, usually without sharing credit with them. The truth is he didn't come up with the themes to most of his hits by himself. This raises lots of questions about what we mean by originality. As a point of comparison, if you look at Bob Dylan's body of work, you see many songs lifted from the folk canon with only the barest melodic alterations. A good example is his "Girl from the North Country," which lifts the melody and even some words from the traditional British song "Scarborough Fair." Dylan acknowledged the process with the title of his 2001 album: Love and Theft. Fittingly, Dylan was accused of plagiarizing the words of Japanese writer Junichi Saga throughout that record.
No matter their source material, Ellington and Dylan produced work that is immediately, recognizably theirs and theirs alone. That's art. That's the way it goes.