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.

From a six-man group, The Washingtonians, in 1926, Ellington’s orchestra would eventually, at its peak of brilliance, reach 14. In his first electrical recording, “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” we can hear contributions from three players preeminent in their styles: Miley, who practiced “foul growling” with his muted trumpet; Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, who did a similar thing with the trombone throughout his long career with the band (Miley died young); and Otto “Toby” Hardwick, whose playing on the alto and soprano sax provided many identifiable touches of what Gunther Schuller has called “his slick, slightly oily tone and lip slurs.” Hardwick was seldom a major soloist, although he played with the band on and off for decades; but his touch—not appreciated by all fans of Ellington—is one of the distinct pleasures of listening to the band.

This pleasure in idiosyncrasy, the listener’s pleasure in identifying individual soloists, is one way of accounting for the difference between the Ellington band of whatever era and the bands of his contemporaries. Teachout’s way of putting it is to contrast Ellington’s operation with the more smoothly blended styles of Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw or Jimmie Lunceford. He calls Ellington’s sound, by contrast, “a loose festive ensemble sound.” Rather than the clean precision of a Goodman piece, Ellington’s way was different:

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.

Interestingly, the great trombonist Jack Teagarden didn’t like the Ellington band: “He never had a band all in tune, always had a bad tone quality and bad blend,” he complained. Whether or not the “pointillist” comparison justifies Teachout’s claim that Ellington’s blend, far from “bad,” was, rather, unconventional, it’s significant that Teachout reaches out for an impressionistic metaphor to get at the specialness of Ellington’s sound. My own listening to Big Band swing in the 1940s was concentrated on three groups: Stan Kenton’s, Gene Krupa’s, and, above all, Woody Herman’s. Each of these had a more streamlined feel in its “blend” than did Ellington’s. And he seldom played as fast or as loud as Kenton, Krupa, or Herman. For me, and perhaps for others, Ellington took some getting used to.

Reviewing Duke in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik posed a large question: “What was it in this dance music, heard in short takes on scratchy 78s, that left its devotees devoted to some larger set of human values?” By way of suggesting the improbability that Ellington’s band could inspire such transcendent values, Gopnik feels compelled to play down, even demean, what he thinks are facts about the band and its leader in the late 1920s and ’30s, producing hundreds of recordings while playing countless gigs all over the United States and Europe. A look at Gopnik’s “facts” doesn’t inspire assent: “Ellington was a dance-band impresario who played no better than O.K. piano, got trapped for years playing ‘jungle music’ in gangster night clubs, and at his height produced mostly tinny, brief recordings.” 

One hardly knows where to start in refuting these claims, but a beginning would be to insist that Ellington’s original style at the piano was a lot better than “O.K.” His was not the technical brilliance and flash of a Fats Waller or Art Tatum, and it’s true that, occasionally, there’s not much to be said about his solos. But more often, his unobvious rhythms and muted tone are essential to the “thicker-textured” (Teachout’s phrase) colorings of the orchestral arrangement—again, to be distinguished from Goodman’s full-speed-ahead procedures on “Don’t Be That Way” or “King Porter Stomp.” 

But the most ludicrous of Gopnik’s claims is that all these years produced little more than “tinny, brief recordings.” Tinny? “Mood Indigo”? “Solitude”? “Rockin’ in Rhythm”? Is there no more to be said for the virtues of three-minute recordings than that they are “brief”? In fact, Ellington got into trouble when, time and again, he tried to extend his brief pieces into suites with some sort of thematic content, the best known of which is Black, Brown and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the History of the American Negro

Whitney Balliett found Ellington’s three-minute events to contain “an incredibly rich sound that is one of the delights of Western music.” No musician, wrote Balliett, “regardless of his skill could reproduce the timbre, tone, and inflections of Ellington’s musicians.” Gunther Schuller called it a “perfect balance between composition and improvisation.”

What, by general consensus, represents the Ellington band at its greatest is known as the Blanton-Webster band of 1940-42. Jimmy Blanton was a 19-year-old bass player whose life was cut short by tuberculosis in 1941, less than two years after joining Ellington, and whose memorable, plucked-bass solos are most vividly heard on a 1940 recording, “Jack the Bear.” Ben Webster, already a veteran tenor man and fresh from making a number of sides with Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson, provided a gutsy, full-throated voice to add to the other saxes: Hardwick, Hodges, and Harry Carney.

With Ray Nance having replaced the trumpeter Cootie Williams, the band played a remarkable date, in frigid February 1940, at the Crystal Ballroom in Fargo, North Dakota. This performance was recorded by two young engineers on a portable disc cutter and features standbys such as “Cotton Tail,” “Never No Lament,” and “Harlem Airshaft.” The result, heard 70 years later, is as fresh and full as the band would ever sound. After the concert, a local fan left a description of the seemingly casual array of musicians before the concert began, galvanized when Carney, the baritone sax player with a truly noble tone, “began to tap his foot and suddenly the orchestra burst into full cry.” That fan, named Daniel Halpern, said, “I felt cheated by the records to which we had been listening for so many months. They were nothing like this.”

My credentials as an Ellington listener are somewhat suspect, in that I’ve never listened to very much of what he produced after World War II. Teachout is obliged to describe the origins and contents of a number of orchestral suites, which have not inspired many listeners. More exciting was the Newport Jazz Festival of 1956, in which Webster’s replacement on tenor sax, Paul Gonsalves, took 27 choruses of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” originally an eight-minute extended piece, electrifying the audience and bringing the band to a renaissance of popular acclaim, short-term though it was. 

Unless my own case is untypical, I think Ellington will continue to be listened to mainly for the short, three-minute numbers from 1927-42. Teachout says about “Ko-Ko,” perhaps the most impressive and most praised recording from this period, that it constituted “a relentless procession of musical events that contained not a wasted gesture.” Repeated listenings to its propulsive excitement prompted me—as when reading a poem notable for its diction and rhythmic movement—to look for critical help in unpacking some of its richness. But, of course, any attempt to break down and represent technically what the music makes us hear so powerfully is difficult—especially if the chordal structure, the chromatic sequences, are as dense as they are in not just “Ko-Ko” but in any number of similarly thickly textured arrangements.

Teachout does very little of such musicological analysis, although his commentary on particular recordings is always shrewd. What he does do, aside from keeping the narrative moving along, is provide telling portraits of Ellington’s sidemen as they came, stayed, and eventually left. He calls Johnny Hodges Ellington’s greatest soloist, with Cootie Williams, “Tricky Sam” Nanton, and Ben Webster not far behind. Rex Stewart’s “half-valve” performance on cornet is but one example of the “idiosyncratic” mix that different styles of playing produced. The veteran Harry Carney, whom Teachout calls the first great baritone-sax player in jazz, is beyond praise, and there is the curious, rather special contribution by Juan Tizol, the only non-African American in the band (he was from Puerto Rico), who invented attractive solos on the valve trombone. The drummer Sonny Greer was, from the first, one of the band’s great drinkers—“all our horn players were lushes,” declared Ellington—but Greer deserves a place of honor because he had a tendency to fall off the stand. Ellington finally had to get rid of him, but his array of percussive contributions was admirable. Billy Strayhorn, who did 300 compositions for the band and played occasional piano, has latterly received his due, which he didn’t always get for one or another piece he invented. And there are others.  

Outshining these luminaries is the trombonist Lawrence Brown, who joined Ellington in 1932—the same year as the band’s finest singer, Ivie Anderson—and stayed with him, on and off, for four decades. They never got along; and, indeed, Brown kept his distance from other band members, since he was a minister’s son who neither drank nor smoked, earning him the nickname “Deacon,” which he disliked. 

Brown mapped out his solos in advance, could repeat note-for-note the same solo on future occasions, and was formidably skilled as a technician. (One of the trombonists who sat next to him said that, in five years, he never heard Brown make a mistake.) Teachout describes his tone as “chocolate-smooth” and “cello-like,” and some of Ellington’s more rigorous critics thought he was too smooth to be featured in a jazz band. On occasion, Brown produced a fast-moving solo, as in “The Sheik of Araby,” “Rose of the Rio Grande,” and the final chorus of “Main Stem.” But his trademark contribution was slow-paced, somewhat meandering, in tone, gorgeously full in its unfolding. He is heard on some of Ellington’s most famous hits—“Sophisticated Lady,” “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” “In a Sentimental Mood”—but also on less-known gems, chromatic subtleties such as “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Serenade to Sweden,” and “A Gypsy Without a Song” from the 1930s, and “Dusk” and “Moon Mist” from the 1940s. Readers of Duke are invited to listen for themselves to determine if Lawrence Brown was unique. More generally, they will surely be stimulated by this fine book to reacquaint themselves with the astonishing achievement that was Duke Ellington’s over the years.

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.