DUKE ELLINGTON By James Lincoln Collier Oxford. 340 pp. $19.95
TO MOST Americans, Duke Ellington was the band leader who wrote such familiar songs as "Solitude," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "Satin Doll." He was much more than a writer of popular songs, however. Ellington was an American composer whose range was wide and varied. He wrote works for solo piano and piano and bass duo; popular songs and theater music; hundreds of short works for small jazz ensemble (usually a septet) and for large jazz orchestra; longer works in suite form; works for jazz orchestra and symphony orchestra combined; film scores and, toward the end, liturgical works that he called "sacred concerts."
"His real instrument is the orchestra," said his frequent collaborator Billy Strayhorn, and like Franz Josef Haydn, Ellington could hear whatever he wrote played back to him by his own musicans. He excelled at orchestral texture, and in harmony he was arguably the most original musican of the century. He was, in short, a major musical figure, and his heritage, like that of Charles Ives, is a major challenge to our critics, biographers and musicologists. Even to our music publishers, for very little of his work has ever been published authentically.
The basic course of Ellington's career is easily told. Born Edward Kennedy Ellington, he was raised in Washington, D.C., by middle-class parents. Having received some boyhood piano lessons, he began playing dances in his teens (frequently "society" affairs) while intending to become a commercial artist. On a 1923 trip to New York, he began to accept his destiny as a band leader -- and, with a job at the new Cotton Club in December 1927, to discover the true nature of his talent as a composer, for he was required to contribute all sorts of theater music, and even brief "concert" pieces, as a part of the club's twice-nightly review. By the early 1930s, Ellingtonwas beginning to be recognized as an important figure and was writing occasional works longer than the limits of single 78 rpm recordings. In 1940, when he had assembled perhaps the greatest group of musicans of his career, he entered a particularly productive period. From then until his death, he remained the preeminent jazz composer, producing all sorts of music, all the while, however, passing as a band leader who made mostly dance music, a status without which he probably could not have functioned.
There are some sizable challenges for the biographer of this man. There is the character of this natural aristocrat (the real reason the youthful nickname stuck to Eddie Ellington) who walked with such ease among all sorts and conditions of men (and women!), a man of great outward charm, patent inner complexity and overriding musical genuis. What exactly were his musical relationships with his players, when so many of his works (like those of Sophocles, Shakespeare and Ballanchine) were based on his intimate, intuitive and collaborative knowledge of their powers and resources? And how to evaluate the hundreds of pieces of music that he left?
James Lincoln Collier would seem to approach his formidable subject through responsible scholarship and thoughtful criticism. But under scrutiny these qualities often turn out to be matters of intellectual posturing, slipshod research and glib musical opinion.
Collier's scholarship is frequently careless and haphazard. Phrases like "is not known," "hard to say," "is hard to determine" abound in this text, often on matters that are easily checked or sometimes already have been. To cite only one example, he wonders how much of Ellington's music found its way into the 1925 European tour of a show called Chocolate Kiddies. He might have asked clarinetist Garvin Bushell who made the tour and who lives in Nevada. But he needn't have: the matter has already been researched and the results published. Similarly, he repeats an amusing anecdote about the origin of "East St. Louis Toddle-Oo" but doesn't bother with the real story. He is wrong about how "The Queen's Suite" was commissioned for Elizabeth II. Pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith, an early inspiration to Duke, who was notoriously a morosely humorous presence on the bandstand and rather a braggart off, is called a "bubbling, outgoing entertainer." One could go on at some length with such evidence of spotty research.
Second, there is Collier's treatment of the music. He discusses Dimuendo and Crescendo in Blue (1937), for example, with no recognition of either its ingenious shifts in key center or its subtle expansions and contractions of the blues form. He likes Blue Serge (1941) but does not seem to hear the daring ways Ellington deals with its simple eight-measure structure, an analysis of which has been given several times in print. He recognizes that Suite Thursday (1960) begins and ends with a simple two-note motif, but he apparently does not hear the dozens of ingenious permutations through which those two notes pass in between in that light-hearted piece -- one of the most delightful of all of Ellington's long works. On the other hand, Collier is capable of appropriating the most commonplace opinion as his own. For example: "My own guess . . .is that the blues developed out of the work song in the so-called Delta area of the Mississippi . . ."
ALTOGETHER on the music, Collier glibly judges much but discusses very little, and he largely writes Ellington off as a composer after the early 1940s. (Could that be because the only really expert critical attention given his music has so far not gone beyond that period?) And although a book review may not be the place to list them, a major reputation might easily be made out of the best Ellington works from his last two decades.
The book does raise the right issues about Ellington's working relationships with his men, but the efforts to sort things out are frequently crippled by ignorance of the facts. For one, Collier has Duke taking credit for "Caravan," "Lost in Meditation," "Pyramid," "Perdido" and other pieces originally contributed by his trombonist Juan Tizol. But Tizol is listed as composer on all of them, and as sole composer on some of them. Indeed, in dealing with all of Ellington's activities -- composer-orchestrator, band leader and man -- Collier acknowledges much, but he seems ever ready to catch Ellington in something "manipulative," "pompous," "naive" and "pretentious." Ellington, the acknowledged aristocrat, sometimes comes off as rather a snob.
Collier, in short, acknowledges the complexity and the challenge of his subject, but, as with the subject of his earlier book, Louis Armstrong, he understands less and shows respect for very litte.
For our critics, biographers and musicologists, the challenge of Ellington remains. Happily, the challenge of his music also remains. Ellington, like Fred Astaire, D. W. Griffith and George Harriman, was one of those who understood that a new country cannot live on borrowed culture. It needs its own.
Martin Williams, formerly director of the Jazz Program at the Smithsonian Institution, is now an editor at the Smithsonian Press. His most recent book on music is "Jazz Heritage."