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Duke Ellington's America Hardcover – May 1, 2010

3.7 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“Harvey Cohen is the first scholar to make extensive use of the Ellington papers in the Smithsonian Institution, and Duke Ellington's America is the most detailed and probing examination of Ellington’s later career. It offers sensitive coverage of all of Ellington’s albums and major compositions, particularly after 1960, while virtually every other book on Ellington skirts over or neglects certain productions. Unlike almost all his predecessors, Cohen has produced a book that does justice to the complexity and importance of Duke Ellington’s life.”

(Burton Peretti, author of Lift Every Voice: The History of African American Music)

“Cohen adds to the dozens of books about jazz great Duke Ellington with a new approach.. . . Cohen delivers a social history that firmly places the bandleader within his time. The author first describes the racial mores of Washington, DC, at the turn of the last century that shaped the young Ellington and attributes Ellington’s success during the 1930s to the marketing campaign of manager Irving Mills, who branded him as a suave, elegant genius who could appeal to black and white audiences. Cohen covers Ellington’s postwar challenges, his return to fame, his State Department tours, the ‘sacred concerts,’ and his death in May 1974. Along the way, he focuses on changes in the record industry and music technology and the progress in civil rights. . . . Cohen offers a fascinating, exhaustively researched social history of Duke Ellington’s world. Highly recommended for general readers and jazz aficionados alike.”

(Library Journal)

“Cohen’s volume. . . . is substantial, richly sourced, intelligent, and, in many ways, persuasive. And unlike many other writers on Ellington, Cohen gives proper attention to all phases of Ellington’s career, and in so doing unveils information that is new or has been overlooked. . . . This is an important work and one that Ellington scholarship will benefit from and draw on for new debates.”
(Times Higher Education)

"Duke Ellington's America attempts to get under the skin of this apparently most imperturbable of men, and the results, if hardly conclusive, are fascinating. . . . Extremely intelligent and formidably documented book—a welcome change from much that has been published about Ellington."—Claudia Roth Pierpont, New Yorker
(New Yorker)

“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)

“The idea of a substantial book about a major musical figure that pays relatively little attention to his music might seem counterintuitive — or, to put it less politely, pointless. That Duke Ellington’s America succeeds as well as it does is a tribute both to its author and to its subject."--New York Times

(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

(Kenny Burrell)

“The book makes nuanced sense of the hard choices at every turn, in years when it often fell to Ellington to pioneer new audiences and new venues, and to insist on a level of dignity rarely accorded to African-American artists.”--Geoffrey O'Brien, New York Review of Books

(Geoffrey O'Brien New York Review of Books)

"Meticulously researched and elegantly written."
(All about Jazz)

"Another door-stopper of a book that's worth writing about, and, even more so, reading. . . . The research achievement of the author, and his readability, are far too impressive not to merit wholesale recommendation."

About the Author

 Harvey G. Cohen, a cultural historian, is associate professor of cultural and creative industries at King’s College London.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 720 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (May 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226112632
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226112633
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,613,631 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Biographer Harvey G. Cohen has made a valuable contribution to understanding the complicated work, life and times of Duke Ellington. Despite the academic approach the 600+ page book is an accessible and enjoyable read. Although Cohen clearly is a fan, he never gets carried away by his admiration for the Duke, and keeps the kind of critical distance necessary for a good biography. Highly recommended, not only for Ellington aficionados, but for anyone who wants to gain a deeper understanding of 20th century American cultural developments, and more specifically, the roles of African-American art and artists.
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This book is an outstanding analysis of the person Duke Ellington was. Having followed his music to a modest degree I was intrigued about the author's focus on Ellington as a person and his socio-political views. The book is extremely well-written and easy to read. I disagree with the recent NYTimes review which argued that although they liked the book, their criticism was the lack of discussion about Ellington's music. In this case, I think it's completely appropriate and helpful NOT to go into technical discussions about Ellington's music. I am not a musician and I'm not interested in the specifics about technically what Ellington did. As Ellington himself would not, if the music moves you (e.g., the listener) then that's what matters. My personal feeling is that if you want to understand/hear Ellington's music, you buy the music and draw your own conclusions.

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.
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This is a biography of cultural and social history that adds incredible depth to understanding why Duke Ellington's contributions to America are so vital and important. It is not an analysis of Ellington's music. Try John Edward Hasse's book if that is what you are looking for.

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.
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This is one of those books which was always going to attract criticism and it seems some readers have missed the point. The title clearly states that this is about the 'AMERICA' Ellington had to deal with during an era when racism was to put it mildly, overt and sanctioned. The orchestra and its uniqueness is not the point of the book. That Ellington managed to tour with his orchestra and maintain his sanity is what the book focusses on. Much of the book is about how difficult it was to tour and play to just white audiences in the US and find restaurants where the band could eat. The civil rights movement also is a part of the era Cohen writes about and there are some astounding insights which reveal Ellington's frustrations and anger at how his people were treated. (see p.398) Ellington often used his own personal money to finance what he believed in and this is the era which sometimes is difficult to imagine. The history and the story we have here is much more important than Cohen's writing style and for that I rated it as such.
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