Review: 'Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington' by Terry Teachout

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Duke Ellington

Portrait of American jazz pianist, composer and bandleader Duke Ellington taken in the 1930s. Ellington is the subject of a new biography called "Duke" by Terry Teachout. (Frank Driggs Collection, Getty Images)

"Eight years after 'Reminiscing in Tempo,'" writes Teachout, in assessing "Black, Brown and Beige," "Ellington had yet to acquaint himself with the elementary principles of symphonic musical organization known to all classically trained composers, and it showed."

But who said that Ellington — who already had changed the way short jazz compositions were built — needed to emulate the way classical composers wrote extended works for large ensembles? Why would an innovator such as Ellington feel so obligated?

Teachout attempts to offer an explanation: "Yet it was Ellington's own decision to premiere the piece in the temple of the American classical-music establishment," he writes, referring to Carnegie Hall.

So Ellington was supposed to craft "Black, Brown and Beige" according to the practices of Beethoven and Brahms because Ellington chose to play his work at Carnegie Hall — which, by the way, had been spotlighting jazz and other folkloric music since Benny Goodman's celebrated concert there in 1938? Hardly.

Teachout hits this "not classical enough" point whenever he discusses Ellington's large works, and it becomes tiresome: It indicates a narrow way of viewing a composer who always was pushing beyond category. Toward the end of this tome, after repeatedly applying the same rigid, classical criteria to many of Ellington's large works, Teachout virtually dismisses them: "He was, like Chopin … a disciplined lyric miniaturist who knew how to express the grandest of emotions on the smallest of scales, and who needed no more room in which to suggest his immortal longings."

But Chopin wrote two of the most monumental piano sonatas of the entire repertory, as well as two sprawling piano concertos. To reduce Ellington to merely a miniaturist by invoking Chopin as an example illuminates the narrowness of Teachout's perspective on Chopin, Ellington and musical composition. In suggesting that George Gershwin didn't know how to put together his "Rhapsody in Blue" — again, because it didn't conform to previous classical models — Teachout further diminishes his credibility in this kind of musical analysis.

Still, one has to applaud Teachout for his eyes-wide-open view of Ellington, the author forthrightly documenting the composer's musical thefts, his abusive denial of credit to Strayhorn and what the author considers Ellington's tendency to manipulate others for his own benefit (not exactly an uncommon approach in show business). On strictly musical terms, Teachout performs a service by explaining how and why Ellington orchestrated in the way he did, how he struggled to craft memorable melody lines and how that particular challenge spurred him to become a better composer.

As America's musical tastes changed and Ellington's swing aesthetic was eclipsed by rock 'n' roll, the composer's fortunes ultimately declined: He is believed to have owed $600,000 to $700,000 in back taxes at the time of his death. In his closing chapters, Teachout — no longer able to chronicle one artistic triumph after another — produces a narrative that becomes perfunctory, episodic and a little dull, a sequence of events minus the inspiration of the earlier pages.

Perhaps Teachout was right after all: Ellington remains unknowable, his music transcending the through-line of his life and attempts to comprehend it.

Tribune arts critic/jazz critic Howard Reich has covered music for the newspaper since 1977 and joined the staff in 1983. He's the author of "Let Freedom Swing," "Jelly's Blues" (with William Gaines), "Prisoner of Her Past" and "Van Cliburn."

"Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington"

By Terry Teachout, Gotham, 483 pages, $30

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