Revered, yet today largely unheard: The life and career of Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington performs for patients Nov. 3, 1954, at the KFG Radio Studio for Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colorado. (U.S. Army photo)

Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker are often described as the three founding giants of jazz. Parker’s music comes across as modern and accessible to those of us listening today, though too modern and inaccessible when he arrived in the 1940s. Armstrong seems like an artifact from the distant past. That leaves Ellington, generally regarded as one of the great geniuses of 20th-century music but not often heard anymore unless you seek him out.

I had long wanted to know more about Ellington and his music, so I recently listened to the audio version of Terry Teachout’s 2013 biography, “Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington.” I learned a lot. But I wish, instead, that I could have listened to a series of lectures with examples from Ellington’s music. A nearly 18-hour biography of a musician with no music felt like a lost opportunity. I also would have liked a more generous telling of the Duke’s life.

One aspect that especially impressed me was that — unlike Armstrong (the subject of an earlier Teachout biography) — Ellington was largely able to elude the racist stereotypes of the day. From the earliest years of his career, Ellington was presented as an artist who came about as close to transcending race as was possible at the time. (And no, it’s still not possible today.)

Part of it was because of his manager, Irving Mills, who deserves a great deal of credit even if he and Ellington eventually had a falling-out. (Among other things, Ellington discovered Mills had lied to him about how much he’d spent on a coffin for Ellington’s mother.) Part of it was because Ellington came from a middle-class Washington family with bourgeois aspirations; Ellington was ever-conscious of acting as a Black role model. And part of it, Teachout acknowledges, is that Ellington was light-skinned.

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My problems with Teachout are three-fold. First, he dwells at excessive length on Ellington’s voracious sexual appetites. Second, he dwells at even more excessive length on Ellington’s habit of lifting what he’d heard from other musicians without giving credit. Music, and jazz in particular, is a collaborative art, and it seems to me that the point could be made without driving it home over and over. It has to be said, though, that Ellington went too far at times, so much so that he broke the heart of his closest collaborator, Billy Strayhorn.

Third, Teachout’s analysis of Ellington’s music strikes me as oftentimes pedantic and obscure. Teachout believes that Ellington’s genius was in making three-minute records, and that his longer pieces fell short because he had never studied the European classical composers to learn how it’s done. But is that really a fair criticism? Ellington was a Black composer working in an African American idiom. Maybe his longer pieces came out just the way he wanted them to.

Even so, I learned a lot. Right now I’m listening to “Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band,” recorded between 1940 and ’42 and regarded as the height of Ellington’s career. And Teachout includes a lot of fascinating details, including Ellington’s receiving the Medal of Freedom from Richard Nixon at a White House reception at which Nixon sat at the piano and played “Happy Birthday” for the Duke.

In a New York Times review, James Gavin called “Duke” a “cleareyed reassessment of a man regarded in godlike terms.” Despite its flaws, I found it to be a valuable guide to a the life and work of a genius who, today, is known mainly for being well-known. It’s time to listen to Ellington anew.

Album #14: Charlie Parker, ‘Bird/The Savoy Recordings (Master Takes)’

When I was in my teens and early 20s, there were a number of albums that I would have liked to buy but couldn’t afford — intriguing records I hadn’t heard and couldn’t justify spending the money on. What if I bought one and hated it? I was out $12 or $15, and that just wasn’t acceptable.

So record reviews were important. I discovered several albums on this list from reviews. One of them is an awkwardly titled Charlie Parker double-record anthology called “Bird/The Savoy Recordings (Master Takes),” which comprises every officially released piece that the great alto saxophonist recorded for Savoy, from 1944 to ’48.

Needless to say, it was not the sort of thing I could pick up on a whim. But I ran across a review by Robert Palmer in Rolling Stone, dated Sept. 9, 1976, that convinced me to give it a try. (Yes, I still have it, tucked inside the album sleeve.) Among other things, Palmer wrote:

Parker didn’t just “sing” the blues, he preached them with the fervor of an evangelist; only in the world of born-again church, healing services and holy dances are there adequate analogies for his particular kind of power.

Of the Savoy anthology, Palmer added: “Should we call it the one essential jazz album? The most important collection in American music in print? The most rewarding musical compendium in the world?” It was pretty hard to resist such praise. And the album lives up to the hype.

No one could play like Parker. His technique was unparalleled; the sheets of notes that he’d call forth from his horn sounded literally impossible to play, and by anyone else they would have been. His tone was flawless. And he played with depth and feeling.

There are some odd match-ups on the Savoy recordings, with a number of early songs featuring a neophyte Miles Davis on trumpet and Dizzy Gillespie on piano. Parker must have heard something in Miles that showed what he would become. Gillespie, already a star in his own right, probably just wanted to be there.

Many of the pieces sound similar and are played at a breakneck tempo; you just listen to Parker and try to hang on. For me, though, the standout is “Parker’s Mood,” a slowed-down blues into which Parker pours every last piece of his humanity. It is an astonishing accomplishment. If the Savoy recordings are the greatest American album, then “Parker’s Mood” may be the greatest American song — the mark of a genius who, tragically, would soon fall victim to addiction and an early death.

It’s a shame that so many great compilations are allowed to go out of print, only to be replaced by newer collections that lack the charms of their predecessors. “The Savoy Recordings” appears to be long gone, and I don’t have a record player. It looks like “The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes” is a reasonably good facsimile.

For me, Charlie Parker’s Savoy recordings represent not just the power of music but the power of the written word as well. Thank you, Robert Palmer.

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