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Times Literary SupplementTaking 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