Jonathan Yardley

Harvey G. Cohen's "Duke Ellington's America," reviewed by Jonathan Yardley

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 30, 2010


By Harvey G. Cohen

Univ. of Chicago. 688 pp. $40

This account of the life and times of Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington -- by far the most distinguished and important native son of Washington, D.C. -- is maddeningly overlong, mindlessly repetitious and, for all that, undeniably valuable. Harvey G. Cohen, an American academic who began his career at the University of Maryland and is now an associate professor of cultural and creative industries at King's College in London, has done prodigious research, much of it as a Kluge Scholar at the Library of Congress, and has unearthed an astonishing amount of material. All of this lends powerful support to his view that Ellington's high stature derives not just from the music he composed and played but from the remarkable life, both private and public, that he led.

There's no use pretending that "Duke Ellington's America" is for everyone. At nearly 600 pages of text, it is too long by a third, its prose is clunky at best and sometimes considerably worse, it has absolutely no sense of narrative, and it has a firmer grasp on Ellington the man than on Ellington the musician. On the other hand, as Cohen puts it: "Thousands of documents demonstrate how Ellington mediated the tensions between popular and serious American art, intellectual and popular culture, creativity and conformity, democracy and communism, and especially between blacks and whites. Through his actions and his work over half a century, he changed American culture, transforming the nation's cultural and racial landscape." These are the central themes of Cohen's study, and the case he makes for them is both strong and persuasive.

I call the book a "study," not a biography, because rather than follow a biographer's trajectory, Cohen has chosen to divide his book into sections that, though they correspond roughly to the evolution of Ellington's life, are principally thematic: the adroit marketing of Ellington by his first manager, Irving Mills; the rise of mass popular culture and Ellington's somewhat ambiguous position within it as both a popular and a serious musician; his belief, rooted in a childhood when the most admired and emulated African American was Booker T. Washington, that the African American cause was best advanced by individual and collective achievement; the central place of black history, culture and tradition in the music he composed; his endless struggle, after World War II and the collapse of the big bands, to keep his orchestra going so that he could hear his music as soon as he composed it; his rejuvenation at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 and his eventual recognition (by just about everyone except the board of the Pulitzer Prizes, which refused in 1965 to give him a special award) as one of the giants of American culture; his busy and productive later years, in which he concentrated on "Sacred Concerts" and other long pieces.

Ellington was born in 1899: "Washington . . . proved a perfect springboard for his genius and ambitions. It was a center of black musical and intellectual resistance to racism, and probably the best place to be an African American at the turn of the century. . . . The city was a bastion of the black middle class, to which Ellington's family tenuously belonged. . . . From his upbringing, from the mentors and cultural figures who came before him, Ellington adopted a method of assertive yet nonconfrontational activism in dealing with matters of race, prejudice, and black achievement." Growing up in the Shaw neighborhood on the fringes of downtown, he was encouraged by his extended family -- pampered, in the case of his adoring mother -- and grew up self-confident, taking up a musical career when he was young and quickly displaying a "genial personality and skill at networking and advertising [that] made him an effective businessman."

By the early 1920s he had taken his band (known for some time as the Washingtonians) to New York, and in 1927 he settled in for a four-year run at the Cotton Club in Harlem, which presented black music and dancers to white audiences. One flinches now at the exploitation and prejudice that inspired this plantation atmosphere, but Ellington's stay there (which roughly paralleled the period of Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens) was one of the formative events in jazz history. Significant elements of the Ellington repertoire were composed and performed there -- "East Saint Louis Toodle-Oo," "Black Beauty," "Creole Love Call," "Black and Tan Fantasie," "The Mooche" -- and the engagement "provided huge promotional and creative advantages for Ellington and his band."

By the 1930s Ellington was a national figure, a regular performer on radio broadcasts and the author of songs that became both jazz standards and popular hits. Like all black musicians of the period, he faced endless discrimination and privation while on the road (which, after the Cotton Club, was where he could be found almost 52 weeks a year), but however deep his anger may have been, he maintained a cool, elegant demeanor: "Despite the absence of confrontational political or moral messages, Ellington's image and work represented a significant promotion for the cause of civil rights, and helped change and expand American attitudes concerning blacks. Through Ellington, the black experience, replete with humanity, history, and artistry, filtered into millions of American homes as never before."

He "walked a delicate line, writing and talking about black history and culture at every opportunity, yet participating in the system of segregated venues and accommodations in many American cities, not just the South." By the early 1960s he had decided to "stamp all of his booking contracts with a nonsegregation clause," and for the remainder of his life (he died in 1974, a few days after his 75th birthday) he was more outspoken on matters of civil rights. His most important statements on the subject, though, had always been musical: the aforementioned titles from the Cotton Club period; the hugely ambitious if seriously flawed "Black, Brown and Beige," an extended composition for orchestra, first presented at a historic Carnegie Hall concert in 1943; "A Tone Parallel to Harlem," the most successful of his longer compositions; and the "Sacred Concerts" of the 1960s and '70s, the first of which it was my privilege to hear performed in early 1969 at a church in Boston.

Cohen argues that Ellington's later and mostly longer music ("The Far East Suite," "The Afro Eurasian Eclipse," "The Latin-American Suite") "has aged well, despite its initial lukewarm commercial reception," but only those determined to find gold in every note Ellington composed will be inclined to agree. Though Cohen is right to praise Ellington for refusing to be complacent or to repeat himself -- "he was going forward, he still had plenty to do, creating and improvising something memorable in the moment"-- his yearning to blur and ultimately eradicate the line between jazz and classical music led him down paths for which his gifts were not entirely suited. There may not have been a pretentious bone in his body, but pretension occasionally peeks through in these longer compositions, leaving one yearning for the energy (and the brevity) of "Rockin' in Rhythm" and "Concerto for Cootie."

But if Ellington's more ambitious pieces are unlikely to have a lasting presence in American music, "his personal journey," Cohen rightly says in his final paragraph, "communicated just as much about his America and his world as his music. He helped transform his nation's historical, racial and cultural landscape as he contributed to creating its musical heritage." More than any other individual, he opened the way for the acceptance of serious African American culture and art, and he "provided a key precedent for international critics and audiences to view the music of Americans as serious and lasting, equal to that of Europeans, previously seen as the sole masters." He loved to say that his music was "beyond category," and so of course was he.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company