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Washington-born Duke Ellington has been heralded as the greatest American jazz composer of his time. Even 50 years after his death, one can expect the repertoire of any jazz musician to include Ellington-led tunes like “In A Sentimental Mood,” “Sophisticated Lady” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Yet, despite his place in music history, few were privy to details about the composer’s personal life and background. Wall Street Journal critic and author Terry Teachout joins Kojo to discuss the story behind the enigmatic musician and his unusual process of composing.
- Terry Teachout Drama critic, Wall Street Journal; author, "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington"
Duke Ellington’s “Take The ‘A Train”
Duke Ellington’s Koko
Duke Ellington’s “Black And Tan Fantasy”
Duke Ellington’s “Diminuendo In Blue And Crescendo In Blue”
Duke Ellington’s Blood Count (Billy Strayhorn)
Duke Ellington’s The Mooche
Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. He's considered the greatest jazz composer of the 20th century, but Duke Ellington always insisted that his music wasn't jazz.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn fact, the Washington-born musician rejected all attempts to classify his musical styles. But no matter what you call it you can't deny the genius, the gift behind classics like this one, "Take the 'A' Train."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIDuke Ellington spent his 50-year career engineering a public persona of a high-class man and a creative genius. It was a mask that he never took off and the members of his band and even his own son felt they didn't know who he really was.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to discuss the private Duke Ellington is Terry Teachout. He's a drama critic for The Wall Street Journal and the author of several books. His latest work is titled "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington." Terry Teachout joins us in studio, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. TERRY TEACHOUTIt's a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation by calling us at 800-433-8850. What do you think is special about Duke Ellington's music? 800-433-8850, you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org Duke Ellington's work has left an unmistakable footprint in the history of jazz and you can expect songs like "In a Sentimental Mood" or "Sophisticated Lady" in the repertoire of just about any jazz musician.
NNAMDIA lot has been written about his music but you set out to know more about the man behind the music who you describe as enigmatic and mysterious. What did you find that Duke Ellington was hiding from the world?
TEACHOUTThe most obvious answer to that is his love life which was extremely complicated to the point of being nearly Baroque. But I think he was also like many creative geniuses a man who above all wanted to keep the secret of his creative process.
TEACHOUTYou need a lot of silence, a lot of privacy to make art and when you live the kind of life that Ellington did, out on the road for almost all the time. He used to say he only came back home to pick up his mail. If you're writing music in hotel rooms, you're writing it in dressing rooms, you're writing it backstage you've got to keep the walls of privacy high if you want to create and I think that that had a lot to do with his having such an opaque personality.
NNAMDIThat life on the road, was it one he liked?
TEACHOUTHe didn't know any other kind of life. I'm not sure whether like or dislike is really the right word to apply to somebody who led his whole life out there. It was all he knew really. If he liked it, it was because it made it easier for him to keep the world at arm's-length.
NNAMDIThe world knew Ellington as a man with distinct charm. On the stage he carried himself regally and in interviews he spoke eloquently as in this one.
MR. DUKE ELLINGTONGood evening ladies and gentlemen, I am, or rather my name is Duke Ellington. I have a band and all the kids in the band want you to know that we do love you madly.
NNAMDIOf course, he wasn't in an interview in that situation. That's just something he said all the time. It was his signature phrase.
NNAMDIHow did he want the public to view him and his work?
TEACHOUTI think he wanted the public to view him as a great artist. Not that he went around saying I am Duke Ellington, a great artist but from virtually the beginning of his career when he started working with Irving Mills, his first manager who promoted him not just as an ordinary band leader but as a serious composer.
TEACHOUTEllington wanted to be taken at that evaluation not just for his own prestige but for the prestige of jazz itself which he believed correctly should be taken as seriously as classical music and he thought he couldn't get that unless he presented himself in this way.
NNAMDIEven during his childhood right here in Washington, D.C. where he was born Ellington was developing a persona.
NNAMDIAfter all Duke is just a nickname he was born Edward Kennedy Ellington. How did others see him when he was young? And how do you think he shaped that person, that persona?
TEACHOUTWell, it starts with the nickname which apparently he got from his fellow classmates. They probably had the Duke of Wellington in mind. But here is this young boy, always very well dressed, always...
NNAMDIAlways had, him very well turned out.
TEACHOUTThat's right and there's a wonderful story about him. He'd come down the staircase in the morning, all dressed up, ready for school and he'd throw his arms out and say, here's comes the great, the grand Duke Ellington, bow everybody and you know, he was making his grand entrance at the age of six.
NNAMDIAnd he's talking to his mother?
TEACHOUTHe's talking to his mother, yeah, and his aunt.
NNAMDISo this was a persona that he started creating at a very early age. Of course the Washington in which he was born isn't exactly the city that a lot of us know today. Could you tell us what Washington's social structure was like during Ellington's childhood and what effect do you think that environment had on him?
TEACHOUTWell, Ellington grew up near U Street. That neighborhood at the turn of the century, he was born in 1899, was the center of Washington's black middleclass. And at the turn of the century and for many years afterwards Washington had a proud self-aware black middleclass.
TEACHOUTThis was in the days before Woodrow Wilson re-segregated the civil service when Washington, although very much a segregated city, one of the most segregated cities in the United States, was nevertheless a place where aspiring, the black bourgeoisie could lead the kind of life that it wanted to lead.
TEACHOUTSo Ellington is raised in an air of middleclass respectability and it's something that he never loses. It becomes central to his personality. Not say like Louis Armstrong who was born on the roughest block in New Orleans. His mother was a prostitute and that shaped his character.
TEACHOUTYou know, Ellington is born with a different set of expectations and he brings them into his career and he brings them into his public image.
NNAMDIDoes that provide an explanation for why he always saw himself, it seems as representing the race?
TEACHOUTIt's part of it. I think also he simply understood that an artist having the kind of success he had, becoming a public figure in the way that he did at such an early point in his life was going to be seen that way, not just by his fellow Blacks but by all Americans. And in a way it might have been even more important in his perception, the thought that white people would see him as a representative figure of the race.
TEACHOUTThey'd see him and many of them, they probably have known a black person like that, somebody who was presenting himself as, and he was, a major artist. They would look at him and say, my God, maybe what we think about black people is not right because it's not like what we're seeing in him.
NNAMDIWe think of the elite high school for Blacks in those days as Dunbar High School but Armstrong, but Ellington went to the Armstrong Manual Training School...
NNAMDI...which is still located on the corner of First and P Street Northwest here in Washington. He eventually dropped out of there to spend more time in music.
TEACHOUTThat's right. He wasn't a prodigy interestingly enough. He wasn't interested in music really at all at first. It was baseball that he liked and he had real talent as an artist, a painter, with drawing, had a scholarship and thought he might pursue that.
TEACHOUTBut then he finally hears jazz played, jazz and ragtime and that's the kind of music that makes sense to him in a way that classical music did not and he says to himself, I want to do this. And he goes home and opens up the parlor piano and you know, writes his first piece of music and all of a sudden there he is.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding when he first heard this it was 1913...
NNAMDI...and that he had gone up to New Jersey to work in a hotel that summer. That would have made him all of 14 years old.
TEACHOUTThat's right, he spent the summer washing dishes. It wasn't quite as fancy as he expected.
NNAMDII wanted to hear a little bit of the kind of ragtime that he heard in New Jersey that may have influenced him. It's a clip of him playing his very first song, "Soda Fountain Rag".
NNAMDIThat was a live recording of Ellington playing it much later in his career as you hear him say at the end, "I can't play that anymore. It's too hard." When we think of jazz in the early 20th century, we may first think of New Orleans or Chicago. What was the jazz scene like here in Washington when Ellington was first getting started?
TEACHOUTWell, it was, I won't say rudimentary, but most of the jazz musicians here and Ellington was one of them, had not really, many of the major figures in early jazz. Jazz didn't start to be recorded, you know, until 1917. Sidney Bechet came through town. James P. Johnson came through town. But really that was about it.
TEACHOUTSo jazz is starting to spread out gradually from the centers of its creation in New Orleans and Chicago. But what Ellington is hearing is a more polite kind of music than what just a very few years later he played and the world came to know.
NNAMDIOur guest is Terry Teachout. He's a drama critic for The Wall Street Journal and the author of several books. We're discussing his latest work. It is titled "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington."
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. Do you agree that Ellington is the most influential jazz composer of the 20th century? Why or why not? 800-433-8850, do you remember where and when you first heard Duke Ellington? What was your impression? You can also send us email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. In 1919, Ellington left for Harlem. Do you think he could have grown the way he did had he stayed here in Washington?
TEACHOUTNo, he couldn't have. The jazz scene in Washington at that point was just not well developed enough. He needed to be around the major players. He needed to be around a scene that was in musical ferment as Harlem was in 1919 and immediately afterwards.
TEACHOUTAnd as soon as he got there, what he may have imagined for himself became true. He starts to lead a band. He makes the right connections. Within a very few years he is leading the house band at the Cotton Club and he's on his way to becoming a world-famous star.
NNAMDIWhen he composed music, Ellington did not start with pen and paper. You write that Ellington developed most of his work through collaboration at the bandstand. Let's listen to his 1930 recording of "Mood Indigo" to help us understand.
NNAMDI"Mood Indigo" is one of Ellington's most famous pieces. He claimed to have written it in 15 minutes while he was waiting for his mother to finish cooking dinner but that's not how it went. Could you talk a little bit...
TEACHOUTIt's a little more complicated than that.
NNAMDI...how did he create that piece through collaboration?
TEACHOUTWell, to begin with the clarinet player that you're hearing, Barney Bigard, brought in the tune that you just heard him play. It's something that he either wrote or heard down in New Orleans, which is where he came from. Ellington put that together with the opening section, the corral which is for clarinet , trumpet and trombone and the rhythm section. It's the combination of the two strains that makes this not just a tune but a composition, something that has structure, something that has a musical arch.
TEACHOUTAnd we talk about pen and paper. It is perfectly possible, but we don't know this for sure, that Ellington might just have been sitting on the bandstand in a recording studio and telling those three horn players what to play. He might've played it for them on the piano. He would've said, Artie, you play this line and Barney, you play that line. A lot of his early compositions were put together just like that.
NNAMDIWell, the song does credit -- the credits to "Mood Indigo" include the clarinet player you mentioned, Barney Bigard, and his manager Irving Mills. And you point out that many of Ellington's classic hits like "Take the "A" Train" were the results of collaborations with his band members. Did he always recognize the work of his collaborators? Did he always acknowledge the work of his collaborators?
TEACHOUTWell, he recognized it, he didn't always acknowledge it. In the case of "Mood Indigo" Bigard had to threaten to sue him for royalties, for example. In the case of the song "Sophisticated Lady," one of his most famous hits, the entire melody is written not by Duke Ellington but by two of the members of the band, Lawrence Brown, the trombone player, Otto Hardwick, the saxophone player. They brought in these two separate A bar pieces of melody.
TEACHOUTEllington is the man who says, oh I'll take this one and I'll take that one, I'll put them together like a mosaic, make a 32-bar tune out of it. And then I'll orchestrate it, I'll arrange it and I'll create a composition out of it. When it went on the record, the first label, their names were all on it. And then Ellington bought the other two guys out for $25 apiece, flat fee. And ever after their names disappeared from the label.
NNAMDIOne of his most significant collaborators was of course Billy Strayhorn.
NNAMDIIn fact, several of Ellington's best known tunes included melodies written by Strayhorn. Let's give a listen to Billy Strayhorn's piece "Blood Count."
NNAMDIWhat can we learn about Strayhorn's influence on Ellington from that piece?
TEACHOUTWell, that is the last piece of music that Billy Strayhorn in 1966. He was dying of cancer of the esophagus. He was receiving chemotherapy. That's what the title refers to, "Blood Count." The difference between Strayhorn's style and Ellington's style -- and you can hear some of that here -- Ellington is not classically trained. He's really not trained at all. He's essentially a self-taught composer. Strayhorn has classical training. He's familiar with the French impressionists Debussy, Ravel. And he brings their more complex harmonic language and some of the orchestral color into his writing for the Ellington Band.
TEACHOUTAnd Ellington, who is always listening to everything that's happening up on the bandstand, he's taking that in in exactly the same way that Strayhorn is taking in Ellington's style. So you have a case of cross influence where the two men are helping to shape each other's styles.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Perry in Reston, Va. Perry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PERRYWell, first I have to say you stole my question so I'm going to have to change it up a little bit. That was the very reason I was calling. Some people I know considered Strayhorn the genius behind the genius. And my question is, was he actually exploited by Ellington? I put it in the context of I think it's known now that he was homosexual.
PERRYIs it a case that Ellington could not promote him because of the taboos that associate with that or that he -- what was their relationship in that context?
TEACHOUTWell, you're pretty close to the mark there. Strayhorn was gay and he was at ease with it. I mean, he wasn't haunted by it or anything like that, but he knew -- he himself knew that he couldn't really be a public figure and lead the life that he wanted to lead in the '40s and the '50s. And so he didn't appear on stage with the Ellington Band. Ellington gave him full credit for what he did but Strayhorn wasn't there.
TEACHOUTAnd so when you've got Strayhorn's music being played in public but it's being presented by Ellington who is this colossally charismatic figure, you know, he...
NNAMDIStrayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows.
TEACHOUTWell, that's exactly right. Ellington was taking the bows. And exploit is a strong word. It's not the word that I would use. But Strayhorn did come to feel, by the '50s, that he was not getting the kind of recognition that he deserved. And he and Ellington had a complicated relationship. It was a father-son relationship basically. Strayhorn's father had been abusive, so he looks to Ellington for that kind of role in his life. And there's no such thing as a father-son relationship that isn't complicated when both men are geniuses.
NNAMDIYou write about a magazine interviewer. Ellington makes no mention of Strayhorn's contributions. At one point I read where he told his son Mercer and his sister, that Strayhorn's coming to live with us.
TEACHOUTYes, that's exactly right. He met Strayhorn at the end of 1938 in Pittsburgh, which is where Strayhorn grew up. Strayhorn got a backstage invitation, played for Ellington. Ellington immediately knew what he had there and he said, I want to hire you. I want you to be part of the organization. Go to New York, you know, come to my house and here's how you get there. You take the "A" Train up to my apartment. And that's where that came from.
TEACHOUTAnd from that moment on, Strayhorn was, in a very literal sense, part of the family. The Ellington's took him in.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, if you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. We're talking with Terry Teachout about his latest work. It's titled "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington." If you have comments or questions, the number is 800-433-8850. Are there any contemporary composers or jazz musicians that you think compare to Duke Ellington, 800-433-8850? Or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Terry Teachout. he's a drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, the author of several books. We're discussing his latest work. It is titled "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850 or you can send email to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ellington frequently included themes from African American culture in his work. When he created a song called "Ko-Ko." He said it was a representation of dancing slaves in New Orleans. Let's listen to that 1944 recording.
NNAMDIHow did Ellington try to represent the black experience at the time through his music?
TEACHOUTHe started with simply the names by which he called his pieces. And that was not a small thing back then to be using titles for pieces like "Black and Tan Fantasy," like "Black Beauty," which I think is the most vivid of these names. "Echoes of the Jungle. These were the days when -- to make any reference to the African heritage was not something that a nice middle class fellow would necessarily do. But Ellington, who was highly knowledgeable about black history, and who was immensely proud of his race and wanted, as we said earlier, to be a spokesman for it, he just put it right out front in these pieces.
TEACHOUTWhat he calls the jungle influence is the use of exotic sonorities like plunger-muted trumpets and trombones, sounds that you just hadn't heard much of in jazz. And for Ellington, that was part of the message, the message that he was always presenting, which was that to be black was something to be proud of -- always proud of.
NNAMDIHe embraced the manners of high society and his image as a sophisticated artist helped him appeal to a white audience. But at a time when segregation was in full effect, how did Ellington manage to reach white listeners and still embrace his blackness, so to speak?
TEACHOUTWell, of course part of it was simply that he was on the radio, he was in films. He was able to reach out over the walls of segregation through the electronic media so that people would hear the music. And his music is this fascinating amalgam of the polished, the elegant, the suave, as in a piece like "In a Sentimental Mood." And what we just heard in "Ko-Ko," you know, these -- funk is really the only word for it, those sonorities. They're all in the same pieces. They're all mixed together. So it's all coming at you, the same message.
NNAMDIHere's John in Arlington, Va. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHi, how are you? Nice to talk to you.
JOHNHey, you know, it's kind of interesting, Duke Ellington, I've always been a favorite of. But when I was a junior and president of my class at St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer, Ind., for our prom I had the opportunity of hiring the Duke Ellington Band.
TEACHOUTOh, you lucky man you.
JOHNYeah, guess what? For $1800.
NNAMDIAnd that was 1953 money all right.
JOHNSo anyway, the story was that this little school about 90 miles southeast of Chicago, in came the bus, off came Duke Ellington. And I believe it was Cat Stevens who played the trumpet that played high C over C and that was...
TEACHOUTYeah, Cat Anderson.
JOHNCat Anderson, okay. Well, see your memory's -- well, your information's better than mine.
NNAMDIYou were thinking a rock musician, but go ahead.
JOHNThe bottom line of the whole thing is, the Duke came in and they had been on the road for a while because they really needed to clean up and get ready for the show.
JOHNAnd he came in and sat at the piano and played a few things and said, you know what? I think you need to tune this piano, which in fact one of the priests did. And we tuned it and we had a great -- and he hired probably about eight or ten band people around the area to fill out the band. It was a great prom.
TEACHOUTThat's a wonderful story.
NNAMDIThank you very much.
JOHNOh, yeah, yeah, and I'll never forget him. He really -- he looked one way coming off the bus, he looked like gangbusters that night.
TEACHOUTOh, listen, he knew the value of image. And, in fact, in every story that people tell about -- especially Ralph Ellison tells the story when he was a young man growing up in Oklahoma City. That band came in and they were as polished, as gorgeous, as fine as anything they'd ever seen. And every black person in town, they looked up at that bandstand and they said, they're ours. That's us up there.
NNAMDIThe picture on the cover of your book shows Duke Ellington's face on the left side.
NNAMDIThat's not a photo that a lot of people would have seen of Duke Ellington.
TEACHOUTNo. When you're sitting at a piano you are showing usually your right side. The upstage side, Ellington's left cheek had a crescent-shaped scar on it. He wore stage makeup to hide it and there aren't many pictures that show it clearly. But the cover of my book shows it very clearly. And the reason why he didn't like to show it or talk about it is how he got it.
NNAMDIHow did he get it?
TEACHOUTWell, in 1927, 1928 he's in bed with his wife Edna. And without warning she pulls out a razor and says, I know what you've been up to and I'm going to spoil those pretty looks. And she slashed his cheek. He was out the door, left his clothes behind and never came back. And that was the end of that.
NNAMDIAnd that's why he didn't like to be photographed on that side.
NNAMDIHere is Paul in Arlington, Va. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULHi. I called with one question but I have three now, but they're very quick.
PAULThe first is, how would you estimate the importance of Luther Henderson to Duke Ellington's music? The second is, did the band ever have any bus accidents? And the third is, I've always admired the Wall Street Journal's arts coverage for striking just the right note for its readership. And I'm wondering what kind of guidelines did the journal give you when you took the job?
TEACHOUTAll right. Luther Henderson arranged -- when Ellington wrote music that was played by symphony orchestras, Luther Henderson wrote the arrangements. Ellington didn't know how to write for symphony orchestra strings. He's important in that way. As far as I know, the Ellington Band never had a bus accident of any significance. If they did I didn't know about it. And the journal, when they hired me they just said, you know, write so you make sense to everybody.
TEACHOUTI tell you, my own way of putting this, when I wrote both Ellington -- the Ellington book and my biography of Louis Armstrong, I said I'm writing for my mother. I want to write a book that takes everything that I know about the world of music and translates it into language that my mother, it'll make sense to her.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Paul. Ellington disregarded the barriers that often made it difficult for black people to succeed during that time period. But there are some parts of his identity that in later years were called into question. For example, his hairstyle the conk...
NNAMDI...that he always wore, it was eventually discarded by Malcolm X who actually wore it at one time...
NNAMDI...and then discarded it and criticized it saying that it wasn't appropriate. But how did Ellington and his style fit in with the tenor and tone of the civil rights movement?
TEACHOUTWell, we must never forget that Duke Ellington was born in 1899. It was a different world. When he was a young man he was the quintessence of race pride. But he lived into a much later period when attitudes were changing, when processing your hair so that it would be straight so that you'd have what used to be called good hair came to be seen as a sign of racial subservience. Ellington never saw it that way. He didn't grow up that way and he never changed his hairstyle. And Malcolm X, who liked and admired him, never singled him out for criticism but you know that's what he was thinking.
NNAMDIExactly right. Malcolm X told a great story about the first time he got a conk and what he had to go through to get it.
TEACHOUTJust agony, I remember that from the book.
NNAMDIHere is Harlan in La Plata, Md. Harlan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HARLANYes. I was fortunate in 1974 to meet Duke's doctor. Are you familiar with him, Dr. (unintelligible)
TEACHOUTOh, yes, that's right.
HARLANWell, Marion was a good friend of mine. That's how I met Arthur and got to know him through a lot of other people fortunately.
TEACHOUTYes. They both figure very prominently in my book.
HARLANThey had great stories to tell me behind the scenes about Duke.
TEACHOUTI bet you had quite a few tales to be told, yeah.
NNAMDIWere you told that he was a hypochondriac?
HARLANThat's right, he was a hypochondriac.
NNAMDIWas he in fact a hypochondriac?
TEACHOUTHe was the worst kind of hypochondriac. Dr. Logan would give him shots of tap water basically, anything that would make him feel better. He said, if this is what it takes to make Duke feel good about himself, I'm all for it. He actually gave him -- if memory serves, he gave him a doctor's bag to carry around all his pills on the road, which were of course nothing but vitamins, perfectly harmless things like that.
NNAMDIYeah, I've always said placebos work on me. Terry Teachout is a drama critic for the Wall Street Journal. His latest book is titled "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington." We're going to take a short break. Harlan, thank you so much for your call. If you'd like to call, call us at 800-433-8850, or send email to email@example.com. Do you have any Ellington favorites that you would like to mention? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Terry Teachout. He's a drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and the author of several books. We're discussing his latest work. It's titled "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington." I'd like to go to Aaron in Baltimore, Md. Aaron, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AARONHow are you? Thank you for taking my call.
AARONFrom my understanding, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus has an interesting relationship.
TEACHOUTDid they ever.
AARONI was wondering if you could elaborate on (unintelligible) ?
TEACHOUTSure, I'd be glad to.
TEACHOUTMingus subbed on bass in the Ellington band for, I think, about two weeks. A relationship that came to an abrupt end when he and Juan Tizol, the band's valve trombonist and copyist, they got into an altercation on the stand and there are different versions of what happened. But in the best one, Mingus pulls a switchblade and Tizol responds by pulling a bolo knife and chasing him around the stage.
TEACHOUTAfterwards in the dressing room, Ellington said to him with great finesse and savoir faire, Charles, I know how to deal with Juan, he's an old problem. But I can't handle this. I never fire anybody, so you are really going to have to resign, and he did.
NNAMDIWe got a comment on Facebook from Andrew who says, "On the topic of African heritage and titles, I think Ellington's "Money Jungle" trio with Charles Mingus and Max Roach is really underrated like his small ensemble work. For example, the quartet album with John Coltrane." He's obviously remembers as a band leader, but quite a great player when playing in a more exposed setting.
TEACHOUTOh, very much so. And he became a better piano player as he got older. By the fifties, you know, he didn't really feature himself that much in the earlier years, but in those later years when he made those small group albums like "Money Jungle," and the Coltrane album, you know, he had really grown as a soloist. He had just become a bigger player, more sure of himself I think.
NNAMDIEllington eventually moved from this three-minute jazz masterpieces to longer compositions, but he procrastinated for a very long time.
TEACHOUTHe certainly did.
NNAMDIIf anybody happens to read the book "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington," you won't feel bad about your own procrastination anymore.
TEACHOUTOh, Ellington, he swept the table with -- the best story is writing "Black Brown & Beige," his great 45-minute-long -- his most ambitious composition, written for his Carnegie Hall debut in 1943, the most consequential public performance of his life, he starts writing it six weeks before opening night. The ink was still wet when they performed it at Carnegie Hall.
NNAMDIAccording to you account, he continually fails to create longer pieces that are as compelling as his shorter works.
NNAMDIWhy do you think he was unable to fully master the long (word?) ?
TEACHOUTI think because he had decided early on that he didn't really want to know about classical music. He wanted to be completely original. And the problem is that jazz did not provide him with the models for large scale composition that he would easily have found if he'd familiarized himself with classical music. So he was trying to reinvent the wheel instead of learning about these procedures, not so complicated. A genius could have mastered them immediately, but it was just not something he grappled with.
NNAMDIHe had already impressed the world, however, with his short jazz pieces. Why did he feel he had to create suites and symphonies?
TEACHOUTI think it goes back to that need for respectability that's rooted in the middle-class heritage. I mean, he didn't need to play at Carnegie Hall. I mean, he needed nothing to ratify his genius, but somewhere in there, I think he felt that this kind of recognition was important. For the same reason, when he was passed over for the Pulitzer Prize he was enraged. He saw it as a personal slight against himself and against Jazz.
TEACHOUTThe truth was, Ellington was bigger than the Pulitzer Prize. He didn't need that, but it was important to him.
NNAMDIHe did master a long composition called "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," but it took several years for him to get it right.
NNAMDICould you tell us that story?
TEACHOUTHe tinkered and tinkered. He first -- it was first composed, I believe, in 1937and every couple of years he'd add an element, he'd try this, he'd try that, and finally in the mid-fifties he figured out what he wanted to do which was to link the two halves with a long tenor saxophone solo by Paul Gonsalves who was the then the band's big player. And this led to one of the great Ellington anecdotes.
TEACHOUTThe band was in a period of, you know, public decline. Rock was coming in. They just weren't so hot. The come into the Newport Jazz Festival, they're kind of seen as yesterday's news. Ellington pulls out "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," they kick it off, the band is hot. He points to Gonsalves who stands up and plays 27 choruses of the blues in a row. The crowd goes wild, people dancing in the aisles, and two weeks later they're on the cover of Time magazine and Duke Ellington is famous again.
NNAMDILet's give a listen to Paul Gonsalves's saxophone solo that you talked about in the middle of that piece.
NNAMDIHow can you not love Paul Gonsalves?
TEACHOUTAnd you head that shouting in the background? That's Ellington. He knows how hot things are getting.
NNAMDISo he's urging him on.
TEACHOUTOh, yeah. Oh, yeah. He whipping them on.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here's John in Annapolis, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNWell, that's really ironic, Kojo, because I wrote a book that Terry might know of called "Backstory in Newport: Ellington at Newport '56."
TEACHOUTOh, it's you. This book is extensively drawn on in my footnotes as you'll notice.
JOHNWell, I'd love to meet you, but I want to ask you a question because I think people would be more interested in hearing your thoughts because you're the star here. Tell me what your favorite period of Duke Ellington is, because he went through a lot iterations like Picasso did in his painting.
JOHNBut give me your thoughts on how you rank the various Duke Ellingtons in terms of style.
TEACHOUTWell, would you tell everybody your last name, by the way, so that they can know that you wrote this book?
JOHNYeah. My name is John Morton, Morton as in salt.
TEACHOUTThis is a very important book that John wrote about the 1956 concert, "Backstory in Blue." For me, you know, I wouldn't want to just have one period, but if you put me up against the wall and the guns were out and they said, okay, it's this or nothing, I would say 1940 - 1942, the great Blanton Webster band. For me, that's the moment when all of the elements of Ellington's compositional gifts come into the tightest possible focus and the band itself has all the right people in it.
TEACHOUTIn those days, Ellington just couldn't sit down at the piano and a masterpiece wouldn't come out. He wrote great music in every part of his life, right to the end, but to me, it's '40-'42 that's the climax.
NNAMDIWhat's it for you, John Morton?
JOHNWell, I have to agree, actually. That really does appeal to me. Oddly enough though, I should say an anecdote, perhaps in the book you have, you might want to tell the audience how did Ben Webster leave the band, because I think it relates.
TEACHOUTWell, unfortunately, I can't quote it verbatim or they'll shut this station down. There are a lot of different versions about it. Ben Webster, who was Ellington's first great tenor saxophone soloist, was also an extremely difficult man, and a man who got even more difficult when he drank. And the unprintable, unspeakable version is that he called Ellington a polysyllabic obscenity of 12 letters. Let's just put it that way.
TEACHOUTAnd was canned.
JOHNBut he slashed his -- one of favorite jackets. That's the story I heard.
TEACHOUTThat's -- well, yeah. I mean, that's -- there are a lot of different versions of how Webster got the boost from the band. That is one of them. There are a lot of Ellington stories that can't quite be pinned down, you know, or they come in different versions.
NNAMDIJohn Morton, thank you so much for calling.
TEACHOUTYeah. What a treat to have him call in.
JOHNYes, sir. Well, every success on the book, and I'm going to go out and get it.
TEACHOUTThank you so much. I hope you enjoy it.
NNAMDITake care. Bye bye. Your book touches on at least a few of Duke Ellington's mistresses and lovers. How would you describe his relationship with women?
TEACHOUTWell, his son, Mercer, actually believed that at bottom Ellington hated women, that he was the classic Don Juan -- had the classic Don Juan complex. I would say that he was wary of women as well one might be if your wife had taken a razor to you in 1927. He saw them as always in pursuit, and he never wanted to let them all the way in. He didn't trust them completely. At the same time, he was obsessed by them, he was inspired by them.
TEACHOUTThe act of sex itself was inspirational to him, he said. He used to call it the sex symphony. So there's just no simple answer to that question. There's no simple answer to any question about Duke Ellington.
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you mentioned the sex symphony because he refers to one song as a sex dance. He called it...
TEACHOUTOh, good, that one.
NNAMDI..."The Mooche." Before we listen to "The Mooche," could you describe what the story is behind that piece?
TEACHOUTWell, it was written when Ellington was at the Cotton Club, the great Harlem nightclub where he really established himself, which had a celebrated chorus line of ladies who were not overly dressed. And while we don't know that he wrote this song for a Cotton Club production number, it really sounds very much like the sort of thing he might have been writing for such a chorus line as you will hear.
NNAMDILet's listen to "The Mooche."
NNAMDIThere seems to be a disconnect at times in your book. You write about the genius of Ellington, and then we seem to hear that he's actually a very selfish man who is not entirely responsible for some of his greatest compositions. Why do you think that does not diminish his talent as a composer?
TEACHOUTI don't know a great genius who didn't have feet of clay. It just seems to go with the territory. I believe -- I believe devoutly that the greatest tribute that you can pay to a great man is to tell the truth about him, that no amount of truth telling about Duke Ellington can diminish the significance of his work as a composer. But in order to understand that work and the process that led to it, you just have to understand that he was a credit hog, that he wasn't facile at writing melodies, that he found solutions to his own weaknesses in the form of collaborative composition that he worked at.
TEACHOUTIt just -- it doesn't lessen him. You may not like him as much the more you know about him. People often ask me since I've written books about both of them, who do you like better, Armstrong or Ellington? Well, everybody likes Armstrong better. I mean, I never -- I talked to a lot of people who knew Louis Armstrong, and not one of them didn't at one point or another say that they loved the man.
TEACHOUTYou don't often hear people saying that about Duke Ellington. They admired him, they were fascinated by him. Sometimes they hated him. You don't often hear them saying that they loved him.
NNAMDI(unintelligible) has a quote that I liked. He said, Ellington is the most complex and paradoxical individual that I've ever known, a combination of Sir Galahad, Scrooge, Don Quixote and God knows what other saints and sinners that were apt to pop out of his ever-changing personality. His son, Mercer Ellington, acted as his band manager for many years. After his father's death, he left the band and wrote a book in which he explains some of his conflicted feelings about his father. What do you think their relationship was like while Duke was alive?
TEACHOUTThat was tough because opposed to Strayhorn who was on his level of genius, Mercer was simply a very talented craftsman, a journeyman, musician, and he has a father who's the greatest jazz composer who ever lived. That's a hard row to hoe, and I don't think that he ever fully came to grips with that. I don't think he came to grips with the way that Ellington treated his -- Mercer's mother.
TEACHOUTI think Mercer went to his own grave, like so many other people who knew Duke Ellington, feeling that he just couldn't get a grip on the man. That's a hard heritage.
NNAMDIEllington once said that practically everything his band wrote was supposed to be a picture of something...
NNAMDI...a representative character. What does storytelling mean for Duke Ellington, and how did he bring that into his music? We only have about a minute left.
TEACHOUTOh, sure. I mean, Ellington, remember he starts out as an artist, a visual artist, and he is inspired by the sight of things, by the smell of things, and by colors. He translates them into the language of music. Music then becomes a kind of metaphor for the world around him, and of course he's also writing about his feelings too.
NNAMDIWhat's next for you?
TEACHOUTDon't know yet, except that I have written a play about Louis Armstrong called "Satchmo at the Waldorf."
TEACHOUTProduced three times last year and we are now expecting it to go to off-Broadway this season. We're looking for a theater, so cross your fingers.
NNAMDITerry Teachout. He's a drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, and he's the author of several books. We've been discussing his latest work. It's titled "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington." Terry Teachout, thank you so much for joining us.
TEACHOUTIt was a real pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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