Book review: Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, by Terry Teachout

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 4:56pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 4:56pm

Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington
by Terry Teachout
Gotham Books
4 stars

Mathew Scott

Edward Kennedy Ellington was most well known as "Duke" - and he indeed brought a regal air to the world of jazz from the 1920s to his passing in 1974. When you tap into Ellington's vast musical legacy, you are left with a taste for life itself and for the thrill the man so obviously felt in living the highs and lows of day-to-day existence.

Like his music, mystery surrounded the musician throughout his career and, as biographer and playwright Terry Teachout reveals in this meticulously researched work, no one ever seemed to be quite sure what the source was for anything.

Ellington seemed to have shaped his life - and his life stories - in the same manner by which others would later shape his music: he adapted things to suit time and place, mood and audience. Where it all came from is anyone's guess, but Teachout shows, through anecdotes and memories, that the musician was both hunter and gatherer.

Ellington forged relationships just as he sought out musicians and musical collaborators - often simply because of what he alone could gain from the experience. And so a series of riffs laid down by, say, someone on trumpet just fiddling away wasting time in the studio would later emerge fully fleshed out as one of Ellington's own signature tunes.

Credit was more often than not never really acknowledged, but through sheer force of personality - and genius - people didn't seem to care. For them, being part of the Ellington experience was enough.

Things seemed to work the same way in Ellington's personal life, as Teachout lifts the lid on a lifetime of affairs shadowed by the hypocrisy that follows a man outwardly professing a dedication to the spiritual but driven by desires of the flesh. Ellington apparently used his power and his position to get whatever he wanted from life.

It's Teachout's tone that helps make this a must for anyone who has been seduced by the Ellington charm. The author is not beyond raising his eyebrow at some of the musician's character flaws, those both obvious and those only revealed to the world through the passing of time. But he also successfully takes the reader back to a time that is now almost beyond imagination, when one man had the world at his feet and when every move Ellington made seemed to alter music's direction.

That Ellington's work still touches our lives daily says all that needs to be said about what he left behind. But it is more the man that Teachout tries to unravel here. He does so to a great degree but there are - thankfully - parts of the mystery that remain.

"I'm easy to please. I just want to have everybody in the palm of my hand," Ellington apparently left written on a sheet of paper, found by his son after his death. Teachout leaves us with a greater appreciation of a man who was enigmatic to the very end.