Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington

Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington

by Terry Teachout


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A major new biography of Duke Ellington from the acclaimed author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was the greatest jazz composer of the twentieth century—and an impenetrably enigmatic personality whom no one, not even his closest friends, claimed to understand. The grandson of a slave, he dropped out of high school to become one of the world’s most famous musicians, a showman of incomparable suavity who was as comfortable in Carnegie Hall as in the nightclubs where he honed his style. He wrote some fifteen hundred compositions, many of which, like “Mood Indigo” and “Sophisticated Lady,” remain beloved standards, and he sought inspiration in an endless string of transient lovers, concealing his inner self behind a smiling mask of flowery language and ironic charm.
As the biographer of Louis Armstrong, Terry Teachout is uniquely qualified to tell the story of the public and private lives of Duke Ellington. Duke peels away countless layers of Ellington’s evasion and public deception to tell the unvarnished truth about the creative genius who inspired Miles Davis to say, “All the musicians should get together one certain day and get down on their knees and thank Duke.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781592407491
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/17/2013
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 952,167
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Terry Teachout, the drama critic at The Wall Street Journal, is the author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong and Satchmo at the Waldorf, a one-man play about Armstrong’s life and times. He lives in New York City. 

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 5

Black and Tan also marked—literally—a transition in Ellington’s private life. After 1928 his left cheek bore a prominent crescent-shaped scar that is easily visible in the film’s last scene (and in the photograph reproduced on the cover of this book). Though rarely mentioned by journalists, it made fans curious enough that he felt obliged to “explain” its presence in Music Is My Mistress:

I have four stories about it, and it depends on which you like the best. One is a taxicab accident; another is that I slipped and fell on a broken bottle; then there is a jealous woman; and last is Old Heidelberg, where they used to stand toe to toe with a saber in each hand, and slash away. The first man to step back lost the contest, no matter how many times he’d sliced the other. Take your pick.

None of Ellington’s friends and colleagues was in doubt about which one to pick. In Irving Mills’s words, “Women was one of the highlights in his life. He had to have women. . . . He always had a woman, always kept a woman here, kept a woman there, always had somebody.” Most men who treat women that way are destined to suffer at their hands sooner or later, if not necessarily in so sensational a fashion as Ellington, whose wife attacked him with a razor when she found out that he was sleeping with another woman.

Who was she? One possible candidate is Fredi Washington. The costar of Black and Tan had launched her theatrical career in 1922 as a dancer in the chorus of the original production of Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along. Sonny Greer later described her as “the most beautiful woman” he had ever seen. “She had gorgeous skin, perfect features, green eyes, and a great figure. When she smiled, that was it!” Washington was light enough to pass for white but adamantly refused to do so, a decision that made it impossible for her to establish herself in Hollywood, though she appeared with Paul Robeson in Dudley Murphy’s 1933 film of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (for which her skin was darkened with makeup) and starred in Imitation of Life, a 1934 tearjerker in which she played, with mortifying predictability, a light-skinned black who passed for white. Ellington never spoke on the record about their romantic involvement, but Washington later admitted to the film historian Donald Bogle that she and Ellington had been lovers: “I just had to accept that he wasn’t going to marry me. But I wasn’t going to be his mistress.” Their relationship was widely known at the time in the entertainment world, enough so that Mercer Ellington could write in his memoir of “a torrid love affair Pop had with a very talented and beautiful woman, an actress. I think this was a genuine romance, that there was love on both sides, and that it amounted to one of the most serious relationships of his life.”

Reprinted by arrangement with GOTHAM BOOKS, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © TERRY TEACHOUT, 2013.


Table of Contents

Prologue "I Want To Tell America" 1

1 "I Just Couldn't be Shackled": Fortunate Son, 1899-1917 21

2 "Soft and Gut-Bucket": Becoming, a professional, 1917-1926 36

3 "Only My Own Music": With Irving Mills, 1926-1927 55

4 "The Utmost Significance": At the Cotton Club, 1927-1929 73

5 "I Better Scratch Out Something": Becoming, a Genius, 1929-1930 95

6 "A Higher Plateau": Becoming, a Star, 1931-1933 117

7 "The Way the President Travels": On the Road, 1933-1936 142

8 "Swing is stagnant" Diminuendo in Blue, 1936-1939 161

9 "The Eyes in the Back of My Head" With Billy Strayhorn, 1938-1939 184

10 "The Sea of Expectancy": The Blanton-Webster Band, 1939-1940 201

11 "A Message for the World": Jump for Joy, 1941-1942 220

12 "I Don't Write Jazz": Carnegie Hall 1942-1946 235

13 "More a Business than an Art": Into the Wilderness, 1946-1955 257

14 "I Was Born In 1956": Crescendo in Blue, 1955-1960 283

15 "Fate's Being Kind to Me": Apotheosis, 1960-1967 309

16 "That Big Yawning Void": Alone in a Crowd, 1967-1974 335

Afterword 363

Appendix: Fifty Key Recordings by Duke Ellington 365

Select Bibliography 369

Source Notes 383

Permissions 465

Index 467

About the Author 483

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Compelling narrative flow...poised impartiality. . . .Teachout writes in an earthbound style marked by sound scholarship and easy readability. . . . Duke humanizes a man whom history has kept on a pedestal.”
The New York Times Book Review
"Teachout is a sensitive writer, and one reason his biographies are moving is that he has obviously been giving himself an education in the realities of American racial history as he writes them."
The New Yorker
"A thorough and fascinating portrait."
USA Today
"A thoroughly researched homage…Teachout delivers a Duke unlike any we’ve seen in previous biographies…At last, Teachout affirms that music was Ellington’s greatest mistress – and to her, the composer was unrelentingly loyal."
Essence Magazine
"This well-researched biography is sure to appeal to longtime jazz fans who revel in their memories of Ellington's work and others who may want to learn more about his fascinating life."
Associated Press
"Mr. Teachout adroitly chronicles how Ellington coaxed from his ensemble such timeless hits as ‘Mood Indigo’. . . . evokes the personalities of the ducal band."
The Economist
"Descriptively rich, the book is not so much a scholarly tome as it is a delightful and entertaining read. Teachout writes with clarity and verve, presenting an astonishing amount of detail in a flowing narrative that brings to life not just Ellington and his music, but much of American culture of the period."
—National Review

"[A] grand and engrossing biography…Thanks to this frank and sympathetic biography - whose every page is studded with sharp phrases and keen insights - we now seem to know Duke Ellington as well as we ever will or need to."
—San Francisco Chronicle 

"The definitive Ellington biography thus far…valuable…[one of] the most important books of 2013."
—The Buffalo News

"Dimensional, thoughtful, and rigorously researched, Duke is an enthralling read from cover to cover."

"Teachout does a first rate job…Teachout’s book is a worthy read. It successfully brings Duke Ellington and his music back into the public consciousness, reaffirming the man’s artistic genius while telling a fascinating story."

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