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.