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Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington Hardcover – October 17, 2013

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Gotham; First Edition edition (October 17, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1592407498
  • ISBN-13: 978-1592407491
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.5 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #294,098 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* In the selective bibliography of this comprehensive and well-researched life of America’s greatest jazz and popular-music composer and orchestra leader, there are more than a dozen full biographies; memoirs by Ellington himself (however unreliable), by his son, Mercer, and by several band members; as well as innumerable profiles and a variety of ephemera. One might have thought yet another life, admittedly a “synthesis,” 40 years after the subject’s death might be superfluous. In this addition to our music literature, however, Teachout, drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and author of, among other writings, a biography of Louis Armstrong (Pops, 2009), abundantly justifies the effort. Though respectful and musically knowing, Teachout presents the famously evasive and not altogether admirable Ellington (among other traits, procrastination, manipulativeness, and incorrigible womanizing) scars and all, including the rarely photographed one (rectified here) on his left cheek, inflicted by his jealous wife. It is Ellington’s breathtakingly enormous musical contribution (1,700 compositions, from short pieces to major suites and sacred music) and his gift for collaboration, albeit often appropriation, that is the fitting focus of this important book. Included is a list of “key recordings,” all currently downloadable, a perfect accompaniment to one’s reading of this entertaining and valuable biography. --Mark Levine


"Compelling narrative flow...poised impartiality. . . .Teachout writes in an earthbound style marked by sound scholarship and easy readability. . . . Duke humanizes a man whom history has kept on a pedestal.”
The New York Times Book Review

“A thoroughly researched homage…Teachout delivers a Duke unlike any we’ve seen in previous biographies…At last, Teachout affirms that music was Ellington’s greatest mistress – and to her, the composer was unrelentingly loyal.”
Essence Magazine
“Comprehensive and well-researched…important….[an] entertaining and valuable biography.”
Booklist, Starred Review
“Teachout gives much insight into Ellington's life, personality, working habits, and compositions. This work should appeal to Ellington enthusiasts as well as casual jazz fans.”
Library Journal
“Revealing…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.”
Publishers Weekly
"Terry Teachout’s biography is destined to be the definitive biography of bandleader, composer, and complex man—Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington."
The American Rag

One of The Daily Beast’s Fall 2013 Must-Reads
Chosen as a Top 10 Music Book by Publishers Weekly

A Conversation with TERRY TEACHOUT, author of DUKE 
Exactly how important a composer was Duke Ellington?
Ellington was the most important jazz composer of the twentieth century, and one of the greatest composers in any genre of music. Not only was he a major composer of purely instrumental music, but he wrote some of the century’s most successful popular songs, including “Mood Indigo” and “Sophisticated Lady,” many of which continue to this day to be performed and recorded. No jazz composer has left a deeper mark on world culture.
What kind of a person was he in private life? Was he trustworthy? Loyal? Honest?
That’s a tricky question! Like many geniuses, Ellington was almost entirely self-centered, though his selfishness didn’t exclude kindness and benevolence—on his own terms. But a fair number of his sidemen considered him unscrupulous, and I can’t say that I blame them for feeling that way.
Was Ellington as great a lover as he’s said to have been?
Even greater, by all accounts. Throughout his life Ellington was catnip to women, and he rarely said “no” when they invited him into their beds. I didn’t even try to count his lovers—I can’t count that high.
Did Ellington really write all of his hit songs and instrumental compositions—or did he have unacknowledged collaborators?
He had many unacknowledged collaborators, starting with Billy Strayhorn, his closest musical associate. He wasn’t a plagiarist, but to an extent that’s not generally realized or fully understood by most of his fans, Ellington created his music collectively—though he was always the auteur, the man who made the ultimate decisions, and he was solely responsible for writing most of his major instrumental pieces. On the other hand, bits and pieces of the melodies of most of his big pop hits were written by his sidemen. To be sure, he usually gave credit where it was due, but not always, and he tried whenever possible to buy those bits and pieces for flat fees instead of cutting his collaborators in on the songwriting royalties.
What effect did Ellington’s middle-class family background have on his personality and music?
It was absolutely central to his personality—as well as to his music. Ellington saw himself as a member of the light-skinned black bourgeoisie, an elegant, cultivated gentleman who insisted on being taken seriously by the white world and performing not only in nightclubs but in concert halls.
For the uninitiated, what should be the three Ellington songs one should listen to first? Why?
I’d start with “Ko-Ko,” Ellington’s most perfect instrumental composition, written and recorded in 1940. It’s an explosively dynamic blues that comes as close as any record can to summing him up in three minutes. Then I’d choose the original 1930 recording of “Mood Indigo,” which shows us Ellington in a quiet, pensive mood. Last of all, I’d opt for the frenzied live recording of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” that he made in 1956 at the Newport Jazz Festival. Not only will that give you a taste of Ellington’s large-scale compositions, but it’s of enormous historical importance as well, for its popular success shaped the last part of his life.
What was the most surprising fact you came across in your research of his life?
Speaking as a musician and a scholar, I was most surprised by the extent of his borrowings from other musicians. I knew he was in the habit of doing so, but I didn’t fully realize the extent to which his compositional process was shaped by his need to collaborate—which arose in large part from the fact that he found it difficult to write memorable tunes. (I’ll admit, though, that the details of his very enthusiastic sex life occasionally surprised me as well!)
How did Duke get that scar on his face? Why was he so ashamed to show it?
Edna, his wife, attacked him with a razor when she found out in 1929 that he was sleeping with Fredi Washington, a beautiful black actress. I think he was ashamed of the scar because he hated the idea of anyone knowing that he’d ever been at the mercy of a woman. He had enormously complicated feelings about women, a fascinating mixture of attraction, hatred, and—above all—distrust.
Now that you’ve extensively researched Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, who do you have more of an affinity for? Why?
Again, that’s a tricky question. Louis Armstrong was clearly the more likable man, in part because his personality was so completely open and unguarded. Ellington, however, was far more intriguing, for the opposite reason: he only showed you what he wanted you to see, and nothing more. I guess I’d have to say that I would have preferred to be Armstrong’s friend—though I think it would have been great fun to hang out with Ellington on occasion. I’m not sure I would have wanted to work for him, though.

More About the Author

I'm the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, the critic-at-large of Commentary, and the author of "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington," which will be published in October of 2013. I also blog about the arts at www.terryteachout.com. In addition to the books on this page, I've written a play, "Satchmo at the Waldorf," which was produced in 2012 by Shakespeare & Company of Lenox, Mass., Long Wharf Theatre of New Haven, Conn., and Philadelphia's Wilma Theater, and the libretti for two operas by Paul Moravec, "The Letter" and "Danse Russe." "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong," which came out in 2009, was my first book about music, but I've been listening to jazz ever since my mother told me to come see Satchmo singing "Hello, Dolly!" on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964, and I was a professional bassist before becoming a full-time writer. Among other things, I've written the liner notes for such albums as Diana Krall's "All for You," Maria Schneider's "Coming About," Karrin Allyson's "Daydream," Marian McPartland's "Just Friends," Luciana Souza's "Neruda," and Roger Kellaway's "Live at the Jazz Standard."

Customer Reviews

The book is well written, and very informative.
Writer Stephen King like a lot of writers always tells of people approaching him and saying, “I’ve got a great idea for a book.
The personalities are perfectly balanced with the musical history of this genius, who I learned so much about.
Sam the man

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Stuart Jefferson TOP 100 REVIEWER on October 20, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was going to write an in-depth review but why? If you're familiar with Teachout's great book on Louis Armstrong, this is very much in that mold. Plus, when I looked closely at the cover photograph, I noticed that it was Ellington's left side--with the long scar from a razor cut inflicted by his wife in 1929--something he attempted to hide. So I was intrigued and fairly sure that this was no glossy, shallow (there's 81 pages of Source Notes!) look at Ellington. While Teachout never really is able (through the circumstance of Ellington not being able to speak for himself) to delve into the nitty-gritty of who and what Ellington really was (he never talked much about himself), his penchant for detail gives the reader a long inside look at Ellington himself.

Some details about the man's lifestyle (his self-centeredness for one, taking credit for compositions not entirely his own is another), and his views on life and people (he was a lifelong procrastinator and treated people--especially women--poorly) might surprise you. His life, both in music (most of the book) and out, the music itself (Teachout feels that Ellington may have tried to go further musically than he was able), and the people (Billy Strayhorn and their relationship is a good example) are looked at in depth. Plus, the many musicians/people he crossed paths with (including the 900 musicians who passed through his bands) throughout his life are open to Teachout's research and help immensely in giving a new, valuable, and interesting look at Ellington--even though his friends and band mates struggled to understand the "real" Ellington.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Milton Wimmer on December 13, 2013
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I am not an Ellington scholar, by any stretch of the imagination. But I have read quite a bit about him and have played and studied 100 or more of his 3 1/2 minute chestnuts. That said, I can say without reservation that this is the best single piece of Ellington scholarship I've read to date. There are opinions galore, of course, but most appear to be based on fairly solid research. (The bibliography and footnotes section at the end of the book are as extensive as I've ever seen in a biography.) I'd certainly recommend you read Terry's book before you read Duke's autobiography, which, to me, was largely a waste of time. As in most things personal to Ellington, the concept of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth appear to have been largely alien to him.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By G. Gardner on November 16, 2013
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Terry Teachout's new bio of Ellington is briskly and engagingly written, and very informative. He has mined about as much personal information on Ellington as we are likely to get. There's no heavy musical analysis but lots of information about the music. He keeps the story clipping along and provides plenty of interesting anecdotes and social history of the period. I would highly recommend it for established fans, who will get a clearer understanding of Ellington as a person, as well as for the lay person, who will get a broad overview of Ellington's work and a nice glimpse of jazz culture.
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14 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Jazz Officer Spaak on February 20, 2014
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The intent of this book is clear from the first page: to knock a revered jazz legend off his pedestal and drag him through as much mud as possible. Only the author can explain his motivation. Was it simply to generate controversy and publicity?

Here are Mr. Ellington’s chief offenses, as laid out in the Prologue: 1.) he was a terrible procrastinator, always frantically working at the last minute to complete charts for new compositions--this has been well known for quite some time; 2.) he was a sex-crazed serial adulterer--he abandoned his wife, Edna, but refused to grant her a divorce while shacking up with numerous other women; 3.) he stole musical ideas from others and claimed them as his own creations; 4.) his whole life was a facade, with the real man always hidden from the public’s view; 5.) he only produced a very few worthwhile, true extended works, many being “shapeless suites”; 6.) he was “a somewhat better than average stride pianist” [to be fair, the author credits him later in the book with some brilliant solo performances]; 7.) he employed a relentless public relations apparatus to hype his accomplishments and only present to the world the face he wanted perceived--so shouldn’t he be credited with being a celebrity ahead of his time?

Chapter 1: The author attempts to put the black community of dawn-of-20th-Century Washington, DC on a psychoanalyst’s couch. He appears obsessed with a battle for status within this community based on skin tone; this will be a recurring theme throughout the book. Teachout says Duke benefited from his relatively light coloration (“coffee with cream”)--as if he had a choice of how much melanin his skin contained!
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Caponsacchi HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 3, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Recently I heard an experienced, high-profile moderator of a syndicated, "mainstream" jazz show tell his worldwide audience that he chose not to play "early jazz" (i.e. Louis, Duke, Prez, Bird) not because he had anything "against it" but because he didn't "know much about it." What initially seemed like a commendable moment of candor soon became a gnawing question in my mind: why not learn? My shelves of books about jazz now fill an entire room, but there is always room for another study about the music's most elusive, enigmatic and arguably greatest musician. Teachout's book helps demystify the man without diminishing the music of jazz' most protean, prolific, complex musical genius (comparing Ellington's "Concerts of Sacred Music" to Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" is like moving from the art of Shakespeare, who embraces a worldly, earthly, sensuous aesthetic, to the visionary poetry Shelley, a vatic artist whose upward, or Apollonian, trajectory is at once more narrow and focused in reach and scope.

As an impressionable student of the music (beginning with Marshall Stearns groundbreaking "The Story of Jazz"), I recall that with respect to Ellington I often experienced disappointment when his public persona did not always seem to measure up to his reputation (as gathered from jazz histories, Downbeat and Metronome reviews, and of course those Columbia long-playing records). His celebrity, I sensed, was often ill-served in popular media like the Johnny Carson Show, which simply refused to acknowledge rank, loyalty and privilege. (Moreover, I suspect Doc and the band were relatively clueless about his actual importance.) His "family" (i.e. the Ellington band) would give me assorted, sometimes contradictory, stories.
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