Terry Teachout’s DUKE: A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham Books, 2013) will certainly be among the most discussed books of this era. Part of the reason is that the book, as Teachout freely admits, is not a work of scholarship but a synthesis of previously researched information. On the one hand this is valuable because it corrects mistakes and resolves inconsistencies. Yet it is also a missed opportunity to call our attention to the overlooked and underappreciated.
Teachout’s day gig is for the Wall Street Journal where he is the drama critic. He has written previous biographies of H.L. Mencken, George Balanchine and Louis Armstrong. He is thorough in discussing his choice of topics but it is that choice where one can immediately take issue.
There is considerable space devoted to the longer works. This would start with the 1935 version of “Reminiscing In Tempo” and carry through to the “3d Sacred Concert” of 1973. Ellington’s reasons for undertaking these various projects and how he dealt with each one is dealt with at great length.
Why? Ellington’s longer works after A Tone Parallel To Harlem in 1951 were often patchwork assemblies of earlier material fleshed out by a few new items, frequently the work of Billy Strayhorn. A production such as My People, from 1963, would contain music which was originally a part of Black, Brown and Beige and would have a newer piece, such as “David Danced”, later integrated into The First Sacred Concert. The Newport Jazz Festival Suite, from 1956, was three separate tunes, two of them written by Strayhorn, with little in the way of connective tissue.
Porter’s theory is that Ellington recognized that the black audience was not going to be there for him with the numbers and enthusiasm of the 1930s. The white media was impressed by Carnegie Hall appearances, fancy sounding compositions, special commissions, etc. That coverage was the entrée to the white audience which he would need in greater numbers in the coming years. It was unlikely that they would be interested in ‘A Portrait of Bert Williams”, “Across The Tracks Blues” or “ A Gathering In a Clearing”.
Those three titles are glowing examples of what Ellington did best-short form, not long form. There are dozens of Ellington recordings, big band and small, that deserve to be better known. At its core, the Duke Ellington Orchestra was a great blues band and what it did with longer works is not nearly as important as what it recorded on 78s.
Teachout is a big fan of Billy Strayhorn, who gets more coverage than Johnny Hodges. There is a lengthy discussion of who did what in the Ellington-Strayhorn writing partnership but the Strayhorn presented here comes off as something of a whiner. He is constantly complaining about one thing or another without recognizing that his own choices are as much at fault for his problems with Ellington.
A discussion of Newport 1956 is told largely in the words of George Avakian. There is lingering doubt about some of the events of that day and Teachout repeats the canard that somehow Jo Jones, neither seen nor heard by the band members, helped to inspire the performance of “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue”. And Avakian doesn’t address the fact that there is overdubbed applause on the original LP. Teachout doesn’t get the Gonsalves solo which he refers to as “banal and repetitive”. How silly.
After reading DUKE, I’m not certain that the Ellington story can be told in a single volume. Teachout brings in too much about Ellington’s romantic relationships, especially those with Evie Ellis and Fernanda de Castro Monte. To say that Ellington liked sex is a considerable understatement but Teachout seems to fault him for not adhering to a celibate lifestyle while on the road. If the idea was to personalize Ellington, he succeeds as much as he can but Ellington was not forthcoming with personal details and Teachout admits on his final page of text: “Everybody knows him-yet no one knows him. That was the way he wanted it.”
PLAYING FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE BAND (Yale University Art Gallery/Yale University Press) is a new compilation of photography by Lee Friedlander. Shot in New Orleans on various visits from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, these are page size black and white photos. And the full range of black music is covered here: individual portraits (including one of Papa Jack Laine), brass bands shot mostly on the street, blues artists, Mardi Gras Indians (including a very young
Monk Boudreaux), street preachers and gospel singers including several of Mahalia Jackson. There are introductory remarks from a 1958 interview of Baby Dodds.
Friedlander is one of our great photographers and this is his third book devoted to musical subjects. More, please.