A major new biography of Duke Ellington from the acclaimed author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was the greatest jazz composer of the twentieth century—and an impenetrably enigmatic personality whom no one, not even his closest friends, claimed to understand. The grandson of a slave, he dropped out of high school to become one of the world’s most famous musicians, a showman of incomparable suavity who was as comfortable in Carnegie Hall as in the nightclubs where he honed his style. He wrote some fifteen hundred compositions, many of which, like “Mood Indigo” and “Sophisticated Lady,” remain beloved standards, and he sought inspiration in an endless string of transient lovers, concealing his inner self behind a smiling mask of flowery language and ironic charm.
As the biographer of Louis Armstrong, Terry Teachout is uniquely qualified to tell the story of the public and private lives of Duke Ellington. A semi-finalist for the National Book Award, Duke peels away countless layers of Ellington’s evasion and public deception to tell the unvarnished truth about the creative genius who inspired Miles Davis to say, “All the musicians should get together one certain day and get down on their knees and thank Duke.”
The revealing biography chronicles the life of the legendary jazz bandleader and composer, who conjured great music out of other men's ideas. Wall Street Journal critic Teachout (Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong) presents a charismatic, charming, debonair man who brought a new artistic depth to a disreputable popular entertainment and a self-centered bastard who suavely manipulated everyone from his sidemen to his countless paramours. (His infidelities provoked his wife to slash him with a razor and a mistress to pull a gun when she caught him in bed with another woman.) Teachout's focus on his subject's creative process sometimes clashes with his assertion that Ellington was "the greatest composer in the history of jazz"; the unevenness of the Duke's oeuvre and his reliance on tunes appropriated from writing partner Billy Strayhorn and other band members without proper crediting raises the question of whether his "radically collaborative" methods really comport with our notion of a brilliant composer. Yet Ellington's crucial role as a shaper and solidifier of his band's improvisational musical outpourings comes through clearly in the book. Teachout neatly balances colorful anecdote with shrewd character assessments and musicological analysis, and he manages to debunk Ellington's self-mythologizing, while preserving his stature as the man who caught jazz's ephemeral genius in a bottle. Photos.