Book Review: Sheet Music

Terry Teachout

Sheet Music

Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington

by Terry Teachout
Gotham Books, 496 pp., $30

As composer, bandleader, and pianist, Duke Ellington had an unparalleled career that spanned over half a century. No surprise, then, that he was a complex and often enigmatic character who could be endlessly charming and generous but also unscrupulous and narcissistic. Terry Teachout, drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and author of biographies on Louis Armstrong, George Balanchine, and H.L. Mencken, concentrates the first half of Duke on Ellington's middle class upbringing in Washington, D.C., and the first 20 years of his career, beginning with his early adulthood amidst the Harlem Renaissance at the famed Cotton Club. During those formative years blossomed this largely self-taught musician's creative process and ability to interpolate the ideas of his orchestra members into timeless music. His relationships with manager Irving Mills and seminal collaborator Billy Strayhorn are covered in depth as are his peak Blanton-Webster band, the Carnegie Hall concerts of the Forties, his comeback at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, and the various suites and Sacred Concerts of his twilight years. Teachout does a commendable job of contextualizing Ellington's career within the prevailing American social and cultural milieu of this roughly 50-year period, including the omnipresent specter of race and its unavoidable influence on the maestro. (Terry Teachout speaks at TBF on Sunday, 12:15pm, at the Capitol Auditorium, Rm. E1.004.)

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