In Kenneth Grahame’s beloved literary classic, The Wind in The Willows, Badger recounts the discovery of the ferrets in Toad Hall and says “we rush in upon them” while Mr. Toad ecstatically runs around the room exclaiming “and we whack ‘em and whack ‘em and whack ‘em.”
That’s exactly the impression I was left with after reading Terry Teachout’s Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington [New York: Gotham Books, 2013]. Each and every aspect of Duke career is banged, bashed and battered until the Duke of legend is re-formed into a flesh and blood human being with frailties, foibles and follies.
With this treatment of the most respected composer in Jazz by one of the music’s most highly regarded critics, one thing is certain: the days of Ellington idolatry and hagiography are officially over.
This is not a book about Duke Ellington as written by another adoring sycophant. Mr. Teachout takes away the mirrors and the magical illusions and reveals the Ellington self-centeredness that was his personal prescription for a happy life.
As the Duke expressed it: “No problem. I’m easy to please. I just want to have everyone in the palm of my hand.”
“That serene egotism lay at the heart of an extraordinary career that made him a living Jazz legend, renowned composer and celebrated bandleader. The inimitable style of his music - known as the ‘Ellington effect” - left musicians amazed and audiences enchanted….
A man of gargantuan appetites for food and women as well as music, he believed that doing exactly what he wanted when he wanted was the key to maintaining the vital spark that made him special, ordained for spectacular success. …
His success was a product of his personal charisma (a rival bandleader described him as ‘more than suave’) and uncanny talent. Ellington transformed big-band jazz by fusing improvisational spontaneity with structural compositions. He turned individual voices into musical material, ensuring an Ellington piece had an organic unity, alive in the moment.” [The Economist, 11/9/2013].
While it is true that many of the Ellington band members contributed themes, riffs and improvisations that would eventually be incorporated into the Ellington canon and harbored resentments about the lack of acknowledgement or credit for these offerings, Mr.Teachout is very clear about the fact the band’s achievements are inseparable from the Duke and his glittering personality.
“For half a century he kept his splendid show on the road, writing music not for posterity, but because he wanted to hear it now. The result was an unequalled body of work, from his string of 1940’s classics, including his annual Carnegie Hall concerts, to the landmark performance that ignited the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival and relaunched his career, to his globetrotting during the 1960’s and 1970’s, which ceased only with his death from cancer in 1974. Through it all the man himself remained an enigma, keeping lovers and musicians alike at arm's length, but in the palm of his hand. And always, as Mr Teachout writes, he was ‘a genius, a titan of modern music who to the end of his life could conjure high art out of thin air.’" [Ibid]
In trying to reveal the true Duke, Mr. Teachout set no easy task for himself as he was taking on a supposed Master of Deception who had over half-a-century of practice and lots of helping hands, willingly or otherwise, as many around him were hiding their true feelings from one another and participating in the masquerade.
Chris Foran writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Duke Ellington has always been a little hard to figure.”
Mr. Foran goes on to explain that although Mr. Teachout “doesn’t exactly decode the Duke, ... his exhaustive mining of the archives” gives us a more in-depth portrait than we’ve ever had.before. The Duke embodied civilized refinement on stage but struggled offstage to juggle all of his extramarital affairs. He is widely celebrated as one of the greatest composers in jazz history but is known for having lifted many of his best ideas from musicians under his employ. Critic Terry Teachout, a former bassist, focuses mostly on Ellington's music in this rigorously researched biography, showing ‘again and again’ how the great bandleader appropriated others' riffs and melded them into tunes that have become jazz standards.”
In other words, Mr. Teachout ‘whacks him and whacks him and whacks him.” And some people are very upset about this tendency.
Jazz musician and author Loren Schoenberg wrote the following on the internet chat group Organissimo.com.
1) "VERY TROUBLED as I begin Terry Teachout's seemingly tremendously ignorant recent book on Ellington.
2) For starters, the pejorative attitude he brings to bear from page one. Any positive comment is preceded and sometimes followed by negatives. He clearly doesn't understand the role of IRONY in African-American culture in general, and in Ellingtonia specifically, which is suffused with it. The comments about Duke not being educated enough to write a score without hearing the guys play it during the compositional process is just pure merde, nothing more. The comparisons with classical music are also way off the mark.
But above all, it's the patronizing tone. He is the true heir in his race insanity to Collier and Sudhalter, though unlike the latter, and like the former, he is a dunderhead when it comes to real musical analysis. That's just for starters."
And on the same forum, Jazz author Larry Kart had this to say about Terry Teachout’s biography of Duke [paragraphing modified]:
"Leaving aside [Loren's] claims of racism, which I'm happy to do, I'm not happy with what seems to me to be TT's fairly consistent obtuseness. For one thing, and this runs throughout, there's TT's more or less aghast, hand-wringing stance at Duke's sexual behavior. No, neither your nor I would have behaved as Duke did, or so I assume, but beyond a certain point what's the point of all this? And in the world or worlds of which Duke was a part, how bizarre, if at all, was his behavior?
More important, though, there is the theme of "Duke was not at all a well-versed (that is, trained in the techniques and principles of classical composition) composer," thus his would-be long-form pieces largely fail to cohere, etc. Let's stipulate as to the latter, up to a point and with some exceptions. But why does TT think that such training would have, in Duke's case, led him (I emphasize him) to create coherent long-form pieces of real merit? BTW, in that vein TT keeps throwing "Rhapsody in Blue" and "An American in Paris" in Duke's face and in our faces too.
If those are TT's standard of long-form American works that really cohere formally and are of real merit, I'm at a loss. I mean, they're fun, they're tuneful, they're forever popular, but come on. Further, and this is my main complaint, after all the major and semi-niggling negatives about Duke's life, lifestyle, and music that TT musters, he himself must face something like "Ko Ko" (and of course the list of such Ellington works is a lengthy one) and not only describe and account for the nature and quality of those works but also relate them to the nature and quality of Duke's musical career as a whole.
This last issue, I think, if "issue" is the way to put it, again has something to do with TT's apparent belief that a classically trained Duke was what was called for, either that or his lack of classical training was a clear-cut deficit. But if, as I think we can safely say, the Duke of "Ko Ko" or you name it knew some very important things about how to make music that no one who would have/could have given him classical training (certainly early on and probably at any time) probably knew and/or was willing to sufficiently/insightfully credit, what then? In any case, it seems to me that whenever TT gets to stuff like "Ko Ko," he kind of shuts down, just doesn't manage, doesn't even really try to, relate these achievements to everything else.
And that, to my mind, is the one place one has to go satisfactorily and insightfully if one is going to deal with a figure like Ellington. Not the only place one needs to go, yes, but.... That is why, with all of Andre Hodeir's at times annoying baggage (annoying at times at least to my mind), his writing about Ellington's masterpieces remains so important.”
Notwithstanding, these strong takes on the relative merits of Mr. Teachout’s work on Duke by Messrs Schoenberg and Kart, or the fact that all of us use masks, or false personalities, from time-to-time to present ourselves to [and protect ourselves from] the world, perhaps we should heed these words from Ted Gioia, another Jazz scholar, writing in The Dallas Morning News, when he states:
“Many Ellington fans will feel that Teachout has gone too far” [when he implies that the Duke’s ambitions outstripped his talents] “but give Teachout his due as he has taken on a legend who worked hard to keep his private life secret as he has torn through the veil.”
Mr. Teachout’s central themes are outlined in his Prologue which he entitles “I Want To Tell America,” [The irony in this chapter title is that it appears from a reading of Mr. Teachout’s biography that telling anyone, anything about himself was the last thing that Duke Ellington wanted to do].
In addition to the false personality that Duke used to present himself to the world, Mr. Teachout maintains that Duke Ellington “... was the most chronic of procrastinators, a man who did today what he could put off until next month, or next year.”
“Nothing but an immovable deadline could spur Duke Ellington to decisive action, though once he set to work in earnest, it was with a speed and a self-assurance that amazed all who beheld it.”
Returning to his masquerade theme, Mr. Teachout writes: “Few of … [Duke’s] pronouncements could be taken at face value - he was never in the habit of telling anyone, even those who supposed themselves to be friends, what he really thought.”
Here are more of Mt. Teachout’s premises:
- “Clark Terry, one of the many stars of the band … said of him: ‘He wants life and art to be in a state of becoming….’” [paraphrase]
- “Whether it is true or merely one of his rationalizations for doing whatever he wanted to do whenever he wanted to do it, Ellington lived by those words.”
- “‘Duke drew people to him like flies to sugar,’ said Sonny Greer, one of his oldest friends and his drummer for thirty years. He was well aware of how charismatic he was, and he used his powers without scruple whenever he thought it was necessary.’”
- “As early as 1930 Ellington was telling reporters of his plan to compose … [an extended piece … of music].... Instead he kept on carving one three-and-a-half- minute cameo after another ….”
- “That was Ellington’s way. He talked not to explain himself but to conceal himself.”
- “Ellington was the first to write music that used the still new medium of the big band with the same coloristic imagination brought by classical composers to their symphonic works.”
- “Everyone knew that it [January 23, 1943 Carnegie Hall Concert] was Duke’s night to shine, and he knew it, too. Yet he had put off writing what was to be his crowning achievement [Black, Brown and Beige] until the last possible minute.”
- “He had never in his life attempted anything as challenging as Black, Brown and Beige, and he had not given himself enough time for second thoughts, much less a second draft.
- Black, Brown and Beige was … an astonishing advance on the dance-oriented music of other big bands of the Swing Era …. To take it in at a single hearing, …, was impossible, but every critic did his best ….”
- The reviews ranged from “One of the longest (45 minutes) and most ambitious piece of tone painting ever attempted in jazz,” to “formless and shallow.”
- Because of the mixed but mostly negative public reaction and critical reviews - “I guess they didn’t dig it,” Duke was to say - after two more performances and a partial recording of Black, Brown and Beige, “never again did he permit his critics to hear his magnum opus from beginning to end. Too proud to expose himself a second time to their wrath, he preferred to leave it on the shelf ….”
- “Ellington composed as he lived, on the road and on the fly…. It would no more occur to him to take time off to polish a composition than to go on a month-long vacation.”
- “A largely self-taught musician, he had never-acquired the conservatory-bred facility that would have allowed him to write out a piece in his studio, bring it to rehearsal and have his sidemen read it down note for note. He was himself a poor sight reader, as were some of his best known soloists.”
- “He preferred to hire musicians with homemade techniques that were different to the point of apparent incompatibility, then juxtapose their idiosyncratic sounds as a pointillist painter might place dots … [of color] side by side on a canvass, finding inspiration in their technical limitations …. That’s why his charts [arrangements] never sounded quite right when performed by other groups, ….”
- “Not only was Ellington inspired by the sounds and styles of his musicians, but he plucked bits and pieces from their solos and wove them into compositions. Some of his most popular songs were spun out of melodic fragments that he gleaned from his close listening on the bandstand each night.”
In spite of this tendency to “glean” from the work of other musicians, a number of times in the Introduction and throughout the remaining fifteen  chapters of the book, Mr. Teachout refers to Duke as a genius, a great composer and the writer of masterpieces.
But the reader is left a bit uncertain about such praise, because elsewhere in the Introduction and throughout the remainder of the book, Mr. Teachout exerts a great deal of effort in what appears to be an attempt to tear Duke down, if not, apart.
In other words, he whacks him and whacks him and whacks him.
For example Mr. Teachout concludes a paragraph with the statement that the Duke was “... a genius, a titan of modern music who to the end of his life could conjure high art out of thin air.”
But the introductory part of this very same paragraph reads: “So he chose to keep on being Duke Ellington, racing from town to town and sleeping with woman after woman, shoveling his songwriting royalties into the till in order to pay his expensive gentlemen salaries big enough to keep them riding on the band bus, cranking out shapeless suites whose inspiration varied widely, even randomly, from movement to movement, and passing the work of others off as his own.”
Genius or charlatan-cad-crook; which is it?
When Mr. Teachout writes elsewhere in the introduction - “For all his polish, it was … [Ellington’s] artistry not his personality that was the source of his enduring appeal” - one is never quite sure whether to believe him.
More central to the tone and tenor of Mr. Teachout’s work is this statement: “Ellington was a self-centered hedonist who lived a nomadic existence in which everything was subordinated to his art - and, insofar as possible, his pleasure.”
The remainder of Mr. Teachout’s book is a playing out of these themes and premises over chronological chapters covering Duke’s career [he died in 1974].
In his monumental The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945, Gunther Schuller devotes almost 120 pages to - Duke Ellington: The Master Composer.
In Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, Terry Teachout devotes 360 pages to essentially establishing Duke as a master of deception, a procrastinator, a dawdler, a shilly-shally artist, a great pretender, a musical coward, a robber of the work of others, a self-taught musician who lacked conservatory training and, above all, a supreme egotist.
Duke Ellington may have had the last laugh - he lived life the way we all wish we could - on his own terms. Who are we to judge him for this act of courage?
This picture taken in 1963 at London’s Dorchester - THE DORCHESTER! - may go along way toward explaining the manner in which Duke Ellington approached life. Not bad surroundings for the son of a black butler, eh?