An excerpt from Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout

November 13th, 2013



Terry Teachout

It’s a great time for jazz biography.  In addition to Stanley Crouch’s book on Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong biographer and Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout has turned out what several critics report to be an important book on the life of Duke Ellington.  I have just completed the first chapter and am eagerly anticipating the pages beyond.  To get a flavor for the book, you may enjoy this short excerpt, in which Teachout describes Ellington’s work habits and what Ellington “sought and got” from his band, described here as his “accumulation of personalities.'”


     If Black, Brown and Beige mattered so much to Ellington, they why did he wait so long to start writing it? Because he had always worked that way, and always would. At times his disregard of the clock crossed the line into irresponsibility, as Norman Granz learned in 1957 when he recorded an album that teamed the composer and his band with Ella Fitzgerald. Ellington had agreed to write new arrangements of his best-remembered tunes, but he strolled into the studio all but empy-handed, forcing Granz to cobble together an album out of existing charts that were altered on the spot to accommodate Fitzgerald;s vocals:

     We planned far in advance, but in the end Duke failed to do a single arrangement. Ella had to use the band’s regular arrangements. She’d do a vocal where an instrumental chorus would normally go…Duke would ask Ella what key she was in and he would have to transpose and there would be a lot of furious writing to change the key. Then Ella would try and fit in and the band would get swept along by its own memories of just how it ought to play…Really, at one point she became so nervous, almost hysterical, that she began to cry. Duke went over to her and said, “Now baby,” in his most gentle tones. “Don’t worry, it’ll all turn out fine.”

    While Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book was an extreme case, it was far from atypical. Ellington composed as he lived, on the road and on the fly. He wrote his pieces in hotel rooms, Pullman cars, and chartered buses, then rehearsed them in the recording studio the next afternoon or on the bandstand the same night. He had little choice but to do so, for he was a professional wanderer who traveled directly from gig to gig, returning to his New York apartment, he said, only to pick up his mail. It would no more have occurred to him to take time off to polish a composition than to go on a monthlong vacation. Even if he had wanted to take a sabbatical to work on Black, Brown and Beige, the band’s touring schedule would have precluded it.

     “I work and I write. And that’s it,” Ellington said. “My reward is hearing what I’ve done, and unlike most composers, I can hear it immediately. That’s why I keep these expensive gentlemen with me.” But maintaining a touring orchestra was for him not a luxury but a necessity. The band was his musical laboratory, the great good place where he experimented with new ideas, and he was incapable of functioning as a composer without its constant presence. A largely self-taught musician, he had never acquired the conservatory-bred facility that would have allowed him to write out a piece in his studio, bring it to rehearsal, and have his sidemen read it down note for note. He was himself a poor sight reader, as were some of his best-known soloists. “You couldn’t give him a piano part and say, ‘Play the piano part,'” recalled Juan Tizol, his valve trombonist. “He was not that type of player. He couldn’t play it.” Throughout his career he relied on staff copyists (of whom Tizol was the first) who could decode his quirky musical shorthand, transforming it into playable instrumental parts that were then performed by the “expensive gentlemen” for whom they had been handcrafted, a motley gaggle of ever-feuding troublemakers whose antics he viewed with wry resignation and a touch of pride: “There’s no attitude, no discipline, nothing…Outrageous things happen, and then they come back and blow their ass off, play like angels, and I forget about it.” Even the music on their stands bore the nicknames by which they were known (Cootie, Rab, Tricky) rather than the names of the instruments they played.

     What Ellington sought and got from his “accumulation of personalities” was a loose, festive ensemble sound far removed from the clean precision of Benny Goodman’s band. He had no interest in the smoothly blended playing that leaders like Goodman, Jimmie Lunceford, and Artie Shaw demanded from their groups. He preferred to hire musicians with homemade techniques that were different to the point of apparent incompatibility, then juxtapose their idiosyncratic sounds as a pointillist painter might place dots of red and green side by side on his canvas, finding inspiration in their technical limitations (“With a musician who plays the full compass of his instrument as fast or as slow as possible, there seems, paradoxically, less opportunity to create”). That is why his charts never sound quite right when performed by other groups, however accomplished the individual players may be. It is also a keen-eared virtuoso like Jack Teagarden, the greatest jazz trombonist of his generation, found it impossible to enjoy the Ellington band. “I never did like anything Ellington ever did,” he said. “He never had a band all in tune, always had a bad tone quality and bad blend.” What Teagarden meant, whether he knew it or not, was that the band had an unconventional tone quality, one that had little in common with received ideas about how a bid band ought to sound. Asked why he hired Al Hibbler when he already had a singer on the payroll, Ellington replied, “My ear makes my decision.” To him, no other ear mattered.


Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington

by Terry Teachout


Click here if you would like to read our interview with Terry Teachout about his book Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong


“It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” by Duke Ellington, 1943

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