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Digging Deeper Into The Life of Duke Ellington with Biographer, Terry Teachout

It's Black History Month, and on WRTI we're looking closely at bandleader, composer, and pianist Duke Ellington, who wrote over 1,700 songs, as well as longer orchestral suites and film scores. In this interview from 2013, WRTI's Susan Lewis speaks with biographer and blogger Terry Teachout, author of Duke, A Life of Duke Ellington.

Terry Teachout is drama critic of The Wall Street Journal and critic-at-large of Commentary. His blog is About Last Night.

Listen to Susan's full interview with Terry Teachout here.

Excerpts from the conversation are here:

Duke Ellington wrote thousands of songs and he performed all over the world. Was he fully understood as an artist?
I think not, and I think part of that was that he wasn’t forthcoming about his private life. He was a complex keeper of secrets about his love life in particular. Ellington grew up as part of the Black middle class—Black bourgeois.  It was central to his image that he presented himself as a man of great polish—great savoir faire—a man who knew what fork to use. But he was also a man who was catnip to women, who rarely said no to them.

He studied to be a commercial artist?
Yes, that’s what he thought he was going to do.  In fact he didn’t get good grades in music and was a high school dropout.  But when he heard ragtime, the obsession clicked into place.

You talk in your book about this concept of ‘becoming’ – Ellington wants life and music to be in a constant state of ‘becoming.’

It explains a lot about Ellington.  His pieces don’t take definitive form. He doesn’t write the 5th Symphony. He writes "Mood Indigo," then he writes another version. Then maybe down the line, it metamorphosizes into a 10-minute concert version.  He was like this throughout his life.  The creation of music was an ongoing project, where pieces develop and evolve and never stop evolving. That is profoundly true to the whole idea of what jazz is and what a jazz composer is.

He was a pianist, a composer and bandleader. In what role did he make his greatest contribution to music?
The twin roles of composer and band leader are intertwined, you can’t separate them. Billy Strayhorn, his longtime collaborator, said something perceptive: “Ellington plays piano but his real instrument is the orchestra.” He was a good and distinctive pianist, but what makes him important to the history of jazz is the pieces that he wrote to be played by his orchestra. He wasn’t writing for the New York Philharmonic, nor for some anonymous group of players.  He was writing for those men on that bandstand, and their individual sounds and individual personalities were as completely wrapped up in the composition as his were.

You talked about Ellington’s command of instrumental color.
Color and harmony are the two most distinctive features of Ellington—not melody.
In terms of color, there had never been before Ellington, who started major composing in 1926, there had never been a jazz composer who used instrumental color with the same sophistication as a classical composer, like Debussy or Ravel used it. Again, in Ellington’s case, these colors are not fungible, not interchangeable – they are the way specific men played their horns. When he thinks of an alto saxophone, he’s thinking of Johnny Hodges and the way Johnny Hodges played. Multiply that by 17 and you get a sense of the complexity of color.

And you talked about cross section voicing.
Usually in a big band, you have, say four sax players. One plays the lead line. The same person always plays lead. Ellington doesn’t operate that way. He’ll mix the sections together. Instead of using them separately.  He’ll change the lead player.  For example, in the song "Satin Doll," the lead player is not the alto player, it’s the tenor sax. It's part of why Ellington’s coloristic approach to orchestral writing is so difficult to figure out by ear.  Recently we’ve gotten access to Ellington’s manuscripts, which are on deposit in the Smithsonian for scholars to understand what he was doing and how he did it.

I understood he stockpiled private tapes of his compositions.
Absolutely. He really saw that as the legacy he was going to leave to his family. There are a lot of them. We’ve only recently begun to plum all the material Ellington piled up in the second half of his life. I thought I knew something about Duke. And I did, I’d been listening all my life. But when you really begin to engage it with it on a piece by piece basis, you start relating that to  his life.  And you have to do that because for Ellington, music is a biography. In Ellington, they’re completely mixed together. Music was the daily diary of his life.  You have to know about his life to get to the bottom of his music.

What surprised you the most?
The extent to which Ellington’s music is collaborative in ways he didn’t always like to acknowledge. I knew this in a general way – there were questions as to who wrote what in his collaboration with Billy Strayhorn. What I didn’t realize when I started writing this book – with most of hit pop tunes, the melodies are written by somebody else entirely:  by one of side men, or in collaboration with Ellington. Ellington was not a natural writer of melody. Neither was Beethoven. Neither was Stravinksy.  It’s not a prerequisite to being a great composer. Ellington had the ear to hear when Johnny Hodges tossed off a riff that he could turn into a pop song.  And he had the compositional sense to know how to take these 8 bars and turn it into a 32 bar song that becomes a hit single.

Does that change the way you view his genius?
No, it changes the way I view the man. This is not an expose book. It’s a given that Duke Ellington was a great composer. A great figure in 20th-century music. We need to understand him in a deep way, a true way, and it doesn’t diminish him as an artist to acknowledge the flaws in his character or the fact that he was able to depend on others. You tell the truth about great men as a tribute to them. It doesn’t make themless great because they have flaws.

Would you say his greatest contribution was the way he used his orchestra and his personal style, which elevated his music?
I think that’s a good way of putting it. We love the songs. We’ll always listen to the songs. The compositions. We know them as played by the band. You can buy a score, and your band can play it, but it’s not going to sound like the Ellington band. Ultimately the document we want to experience is Ellington’s recordings of these pieces. It’s the total effect, the fusion of the music and the men who played it that creates what we remember. Ellington’s music, although he is the auteur—the primary composer—is to a great extent a collective achievement and that can never be ignored.

Can we go back to the chronology of his life? Was his first big break at the Cotton Club?
A little earlier. His first big break was meeting Irving Mills. Mills brought him into the Cotton Club.  Mills was the genius of publicity and marketing. It was Mills who had the idea to market Ellington as a man apart – not just as a  jazz musician but as a composer. That presentation is essential to Ellington’s early success.
Meeting Mills and the Cotton Club. His life was never the same gain. After that, he gets involved in film. He works on larger works, he travels.

It starts with the Cotton Club, which had a national radio wire. He was heard on CBS  and throughout the U.S. That’s a big thing for a band, especially for a Black band in the late 1920s and early ‘30s. Suddenly they’re on the big radio network. People in Podunk can hear them. Without radio, the other thing would likely not have come or not as easily.

He was a big influence beyond jazz
He was a cultural influence, specifically a racial cultural influence. …Remember Ellington comes from the Black middle class. He sees himself as an image spokesman for the Black race. Beautifully spoken, beautifully dressed. He’s presenting himself as the kind of black man that maybe in 1929 if you’re a white person you didn’t know existed. Your attitudes are shaped by racial prejudice. This man – look, his name is Duke.. he’s a genius, and he’s an elegant genius.  The people of his own race understood that – they saw him as a great giant, as a great spokesman – a man who heightened racial  pride. We remember Ellington because he’s a great composer, but we can never forget how central he is to American culture and Black culture through the 20th century.

Duke was a childhood nickname.
Yes, probably because of the Duke of Ellington. We have a lot of accounts of how Ellington as a young man would style around, and show off and dress up fancy. Very possibly, he had a sense of his destiny.

He didn't want to call his music jazz.
No, he called it different things. The phrase he used most often was negro folk music. It never stuck. By the ‘30s the term “jazz” had entered into popular usage. But for Ellington, he saw jazz as a déclassé word. Its etimology is shrouded in the past but probably has something to do with sex and whorehouses that legend incorrectly says is its birthplace. Ellington thought that jazz was serious music destined for concert halls. As he saw himself destined for Carnegie Hall. He understood that although his music was exciting, it was ultimately serious art.

He wrote a lot of music: songs, musical theater, longer works. What was his legacy?
It was his small scale compositions. He didn’t do the homework to make a Broadway musical work. You have to have a different kind of experience. Because he didn’t have classical training, he didn’t really understand the problem of large scale composition, so his large scale compositions sound stitched together. But he had an absolute mastery of how to put together a piece that lasts 3 to 8 minutes: the length of a 78 side. I call him a disciplined lyric miniaturist. If you think I’m running him down, I’m also running down Chopin, or Paul Klee, or Flannery O’Connor.

Merely because you work on a small-scale does not mean that your work cannot be profound or consequential. He is ultimately a miniaturist, but a miniaturist of the highest order and it is those pieces that write him into the history books, I believe.


Black History Month on WRTI is supported by Temple University, home to the first Department of Africology and African American studies in the country to offer a doctoral program.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.