The Magazine

Take the ‘E’ Train

A definitive life of the great American composer.

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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Terry Teachout is a remarkable man of letters whose interest in the arts is multi-directed. Officially, he serves as drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and has reported on theater performances all over the country. He is also critic at large for Commentary, where he publishes a regular column covering the arts. He has shown his literary and biographical savvy in an excellent biography of H. L. Mencken (The Skeptic), a small book on George Balanchine (All in the Dances), and a delightful memoir of growing up in a small town, City Limits

Duke Ellington (seated) and the band (ca. 1940)

Duke Ellington (seated) and the band (ca. 1940)

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More recently, he has turned his attention to jazz, with satisfyingly full biographies of Louis Armstrong (Pops) and now Duke Ellington. He has also been a hands-on musician, playing string bass professionally as a young man. My acquaintance with his work began when I came across his profile of Woody Herman, who led the great swing band of my youth: Teachout wrote about the last days of the Herman band, with its leader ill, financially strapped, and surrounded by musicians many of whom didn’t know the great records of their predecessors, the first and second Herman Herd bands of the middle 1940s. Teachout’s writing is filled with buoyancy, with deep knowledge of his subjects, a useful wit, and an omnivorous memory—in his ear as well as his mind.  

It seems inevitable, then, that he would turn to Ellington, the most important jazz composer of the 20th century and a person of intense aspirations and rich achievement; someone whose life scarcely took second place to the music he wrote and the musicians he led.

There has been an enormous amount of writing about Ellington since his death in 1974, all sorts of testimonies from musicians, more than one biography, and critically focused analyses of his compositional structures. In an afterword, Teachout makes clear that his book is “not so much a work of scholarship as an act of synthesis, a narrative biography that is substantially based on the words of academic scholars and other researchers.” If he downplays this book as scholarship, Teachout’s own source notes come to almost a hundred pages. The few extended descriptions of pieces, as with “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” and “Ko-Ko,” are subordinated to the on-going narrative, but they show what Teachout is capable of doing if he chooses to do it. He brings to the subject, along with careful delineation of the music and musicians, a stylish verve, as when he refers to an early piece (“The Mooche,” 1927) as being marked by the muted trumpeter Bubber Miley’s “foul growling,” or, when speaking of the great band of 1940-42, he notes, apropos of the alto sax man Johnny Hodges: 

In any other band, Hodges would have been the undisputed star of the show, but the entire Ellington band was a murderer’s row of soloists, each of whom was determined to rise to the occasion.

Hodges’s companion in the sax section, the tenor man Ben Webster, is described as “an enthusiastic and inspirational ensemble player” who “hit the bull’s eye whenever he stood up to solo,” as in the “damn-the-torpedoes swinger ‘Cotton Tail.’ ” The drummer Sonny Greer (“consistently underrated,” says Teachout, accurately) supplies a “propulsive rhythmic impetus that turned every up-tempo tune into a stampede.” 

The circumstances of Ellington’s upbringing and his entrance into the musical world are familiar, and Teachout attends carefully to Ellington’s middle-class family, one of the light-skinned black bourgeoisie in the U Street/Shaw district of Washington, D.C. Ellington’s impulse toward becoming, in Teachout’s words, an elegant, cultivated gentleman would be importantly furthered by his association with Irving Mills, the canny manager of Ellington’s operation from the late 1920s until World War II. Mills’s marketing idea was to present the Duke as a different kind of black man, “fine-spoken and expensively tailored,” someone whom “broadminded white folk” could accept.

Decades later, Ellington’s son Mercer wrote that his father thought of music as “a good way to get a girl to sit beside you and admire you as you played the piano.” (As a pianist I, too, had such dreams of glory.) Ellington lost his virginity, so he claimed, at the age of 12, and throughout his lifetime was a “tireless philanderer,” which his marriage to Edna Thompson in 1918 did nothing to hinder. They soon separated, though never divorced, and Teachout speculates that he might have found his nominal marriage useful in fending off girlfriends who hoped to ensnare him maritally.