Duke Ellington’s America
by Harvey G Cohen
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2010
Review by Bruce Melendy
Surveying the still-cooling heaps of magma from the volcano of scholarship, memoirs, reminiscences, and studies that erupted around the time of Duke Ellington’s centenary in 1999, archivist John Edward Hasse described Ellington as ‘the greatest single topic in American music’. Hasse should know, having written the first scholarly biography of the composer, bandleader, and pianist, and having engineered the acquisition of the massive Ellington collection of recordings, scrapbooks, interviews, photographs and other materials for the Smithsonian Institution at the end of the 1980s.
Hasse’s work was a welcome development after the ‘notorious sloppiness and crankiness’ of James Lincoln’s Collier biography of 1987, the first to treat Ellington’s entire career, which only ended with his death in 1974. Prior to this, books about Ellington tended to be written by his friends and admirers, who relied heavily on their personal experiences with Ellington and their connections with the many musicians and associates in the Ellington network. To the extent they approached their subject thematically, this consisted mainly of the by-now familiar tropes of Ellington’s initial acceptance as a ‘serious’ composer in Europe, the band as his instrument, the Duke as dapper womaniser, and his arms-length relationship with the civil rights moment, among others. A number of works focus closely on Ellington’s music, and much ink has been spilled on issues like this or that author’s ability (as one reviewer put it) ‘to recognize the obvious tonic minor-relative major relationship between C minor and E-flat major’. Heaven forfend.
I hesitate to call it a biography, though it is that. It goes beyond biography, however, in its portrayal of crucial episodes in the development of the American music industry, of American race relations, and the place of jazz in American culture.
While a handful of works are more or less invaluable to Ellington studies, none has come as close as a serious work of cultural history than Harvey Cohen’s splendid new book. I hesitate to call it a biography, though it is that. It goes beyond biography, however, in its portrayal of crucial episodes in the development of the American music industry, of American race relations, and the place of jazz in American culture. The title plays on the several senses in which it was Ellington’s America: as his context and subject, but also as a milieu that to an extent he shaped himself.
All the books on Ellington discuss how the impresario, publisher, producer, and publicist Irving Mills helped make (and many would say make a handsome living out of) Ellington’s career. Cohen however is the first to show how Mills and Ellington worked together to build a brand that portrayed Ellington, ‘not just as a musician or songwriter, but as an important composer’, and jazz as capable of the depth and seriousness hitherto reserved only for ‘classical’ and ‘high-brow’ music. Cohen takes on a number of other such bromides about the Ellington story and gives them a new depth and freshness. He does this in no small part by mining the archives at the Smithsonian and elsewhere far more thoroughly than his predecessors. It probably also helped that he is the only Ellington biographer who is also a professionally trained (and practising academic) historian.
He also is the first biographer to give Ellington’s post-war career its due. While previous works have typically devoted much more space to the first half of his career, scanting the period following World War Two (after which the success and critical acclaim of the earlier years eluded him), it says much about Cohen’s thorough treatment that there is slightly more material on the post-war years than on the earlier half. In addition to its other merits, it will encourage readers to take the second half of his career as seriously as Ellington did himself.
While there is a wealth of detail, Cohen has managed to make it highly readable with both an engaging style and the ability to consistently tie that detail back to his larger themes. There is little musicological discussion here, but that can be found elsewhere (as in Mark Tucker’s excellent Ellington: The Early Years). Some familiarity with Ellington’s music from throughout his career is presumed, though the book will have the reader itching (as I was) to listen to all of it. This is illuminating book is highly recommended for fans of Ellington and students of American cultural history alike.