- The Washington Times - Friday, August 20, 2010

By Harvey G. Cohen
University of Chicago Press $40, 687 pages, illustrated

Willis Conover, whose jazz broadcasts over the Voice of America helped to win the Cold War, once told me that as a teenager, as yet unformed in his musical tastes, he purchased many recordings of then-popular swing bands. One day the record-store owner said: “If you like these bands, why don’t you listen to Duke Ellington? He’s the real thing.” It is the thesis of Harvey G. Cohen’s “Duke Ellington’s America,” a massive, exhaustively detailed, and richly documented re-examination of Ellington’s life and works, that Ellington was indeed the real thing.

But why another book about Edward Kennedy Ellington? There are no doubt entire sections of libraries filled with books about him. Mr. Cohen offers new interviews with those who knew Ellington, and has done considerable digging into archives, particularly about Ellington’s finances. But I believe central to his book is an aspect of Ellington’s life that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves: He was always seen as someone special.

During his Washington childhood, he was the spoiled son of loving parents. In Harlem’s fabled Cotton Club during the 1920s, he and his band became nationally known through radio broadcasts. He wrote not only many popular tunes (e.g., “Mood Indigo,” “Sophisticated Lady”), but longer, more complex musical works, such as “Black, Brown and Beige,” which had its 1943 premiere in Carnegie Hall.

As a composer, he was a master of pastel shadings and arresting, quirky, harmonies. But his band could also swing ferociously, as in his classic 1940 recording of “Cottontail,” with a memorable tenor saxophone solo by Ben Webster (“Cottontail,” incredibly enough, is not mentioned in Mr. Cohen’s book). By the 1940s, Ellington had become, to use W.H. Auden’s phrase about Freud, a climate of opinion within American music, someone whose work transcended musical categories, someone very special.

Yet, as the Swing Era ended after World War II, he fell on financial hard times, and his band survived chiefly because he supported it with royalties from his compositions. But he got an unexpected - and by now legendary - new start at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. When his band played “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” with a six-minute, 27-chorus solo by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, it electrified the crowd and almost caused a riot. Duke was back.

His last years were filled with challenging artistic accomplishments, including his “sacred music,” based on religious themes. In “Ellington’s America,” there was one constant: racial discrimination. He believed that his oft-proclaimed pride in his race, his unyielding commitment to artistic excellence and his courage in breaking down artificial categories, in music and between the races, were the best ways for him to fight racial injustice.

But his black critics said his idea of progress-through-personal achievement was demeaning, old-fashioned and futile. In 1951, he was quoted (or perhaps misquoted, as he later claimed), that “we [black Americans] ain’t ready yet” for integration, a statement that haunted him for many years.

He had his critics in music, too. Some said his extended compositions, while admirable, took him away from his true “Negro roots,” and that these prestigious pieces were not top-drawer Ellington. (Mr. Cohen for the most part admires these works). It was claimed he stole musical ideas created by band members, added some Ellingtonian touches and then claimed sole credit when the tune was published. Mr. Cohen argues convincingly that it was the Ellingtonian touches, not the original fragments of melodies or harmonies, that made the tunes popular.

Along the way, Mr. Cohen raises issues rarely found in mainstream discussions of liberal Democratic presidents and the black Americans they ostensibly championed. He refers to “[President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt’s banning of black reporters from the White House, and Roosevelt’s [12-year] refusal to consider a much needed antilynching law.”

In 1962, neither President Kennedy nor his wife bothered to attend a Washington jazz festival in which Ellington and his band appeared. Ellington was given the keys to the city and honored by a motorcade that stopped at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but “Ellington … stood outside in the hot sun with no recognition from the White House.” It was President Nixon, in 1969, who welcomed Ellington to the White House, held a party in his honor and awarded him the Medal of Freedom.

Mr. Cohen, a professor at King’s College, London, has decided, quite correctly in my view, to minimize discussion of Ellington’s private life. It is not until Page 332 that we are informed Ellington did not have a “traditional family life,” not surprising for someone who spent most of his adult life touring with his band. I would have preferred less about Ellington’s intricate finances, and more insights into the personalities of band members like Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney and Sonny Greer. Mr. Cohen quotes them (and Ellington) at length, but never shows how they worked together to bring his music to life.

But the book jacket cover says it best: Ellington, smiling, dressed casually, stands alone, near a microphone bearing the words ” La Voz de los Estados Unidos.” He was indeed, to his own country and the world, a voice of America.

William F. Gavin is a writer living in McLean, Va.

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