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Duke Ellington's America Hardcover – May 1, 2010
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(Burton Peretti, author of Lift Every Voice: The History of African American Music)
“Taking full advantage of [the Smithsonian Institution's] Ellington Archive, Harvey G. Cohen’s new book illuminates Ellington’s career as never before, and also helps to deepen our understanding of larger trends and issues in American politics and culture. No previous book on Ellington has followed the money so rigorously, laying bare the interworkings of art and capital. Neither biography nor musical analysis, Duke Ellington’s America is a social history of Ellington’s career, a double portrait of musician and society that situates the music within three large issues: the struggle for African American civil rights, the growth of the popular music industry, and the emergence of the United States as a global power whose most effective cultural weapon was African American music. If Cohen has an overarching thesis, it may be that Ellington’s personality and talents uniquely thrived in all three of these areas, despite the constant threats of appropriation, exploitation and even physical violence that hobbled or curtailed the careers of many of his contemporaries. Although Cohen’s historical approach is not theory-driven, he skillfully lays out the cultural contradictions of Ellington’s America in the ongoing clash between the tenacious structures of racism and the rapidly evolving music business, a paper empire erected on parallel pillars of copyright and organized crime. . . . Many older books about Ellington portrayed his later career as a decline and fall from the glories of the Ben Webster/Jimmie Blanton band of 1940 and 1941, and missed the story, which Cohen tells very well, of a rejuvenated creativity equal to Stravinsky’s or Picasso’s.”
(David Schiff Times Literary Supplement)
(New York Times)
“Harvey G. Cohen’s extensive research and creative scholarship has helped to bring us much closer to an understanding and appreciation of Ellington’s life, his thinking, his passion and his overall mission. The book also reveals how Ellington was able to deal with a multitude of problems through the years and still remain productive…This fine book is a welcome addition to the ongoing study of Ellington, the man and musician. Highly recommended.”--Kenny Burrell
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Top Customer Reviews
Cohen's focus on Ellington's 1960's work was also very illuminative. I liked his analysis about how Ellington (to a fault) refused to acknowledge his age (and impending mortality).
My ONLY significant wish about this book is that Cohen should have contrasted Ellington with other seminal African-American artists who were in similar positions to Ellington (although at different points in his life). For example there is virtually no discussion about the roles of Paul Robeson, Nat King Cole, Miles Davis, John Coltrane or Marian Anderson, all of whom held unique positions as African-American artists. The lack of comparison/contrast to particularly Robeson, Cole (and to a lesser degree Louis Armstrong - who Cohen does discuss a little more), creates the false impression that Ellington was truly alone as a prominent African-American artist.Read more ›
I found the discussions of how Ellington led by example, composition, and performance to quietly inspire elements of the African American community in the civil rights movement to be incredibly interesting and illuminating. The analysis of the controversial "we ain't ready yet" quote that was taken out of context by a journalist (won't waste ink on writing his name) and how it led to serious misconceptions about Ellington's views on civil rights particularly well done by Cohen.
Cohen's thorough discussions about Black, Brown, and Beige, the story behind the 1956 Newport Festival Concerts (now I know why the concert ended with mellow tones), the Sacred Concerts, and the State Department Tours are incredibly fulfilling for anyone who loves and reveres Ellington's music and career. His discussions made me pull out the cds and listen again with a renewed appreciation that was missing from my earlier experiences with them. Cohen's understanding of the incredible depth of Ellington's later works--including my personal favorite, The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse--paint a picture of a genius who never tired of learning and creating. And that is really the essence of Ellington, as Cohen so rightly understands.
For the other reviewers who gave up early on this book, it reminded me of Cohen's descriptions of the public reaction to Ellington's more complex and subtle works. You need to give them time and thought. Patience is not only a virtue, but it can lead to a deeper appreciation.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
One chapter in, I'm finding this scholarly, but turgid and unfocused. It's not easy reading, as Cohen's too hesitant to come to the point, it seems. Read morePublished 17 months ago by Umek
This was a long, tough read--a lot of slogging through details of Duke and the world he navigated. But in the end, the book did paint a picture of the obstacles that Ellington... Read morePublished on August 1, 2013 by Dale J. Dailey
Mr. Cohen has written perhaps the definitive overall biography of the inimitable Duke Ellington, whose larger-than-life life resists easy interpretation or apt commentary. Read morePublished on March 9, 2013 by Douglas Groothuis
"This book seeks to understand Ellington's achievements and contributions over a half century..." the author states in his introduction. Read morePublished on May 22, 2011 by Michael S. McGill
I have 5 shelves of jazz history. I've read the other reviews. This book is nothing less than 5 stars. Not the typical lightweight gush, but excellent start to finish.Published on December 4, 2010 by musico
Duke Ellington could be a fascinating subject to be written about. Unfortunately, after reading it only partially, I gave it up after the first two hundred pages. Read morePublished on September 1, 2010 by Paul Gelman
Being a lifelong fan of Duke Ellington's music, and being familiar with most of the books written about him, I grabbed Mr. Cohen's book from the shelf the moment I saw it. Read morePublished on August 21, 2010 by Brooklyn Bob