You don’t have to look very closely at the photo of Duke Ellington on the cover of the new Terry Teachout biography to see the prominent scar on his left cheek. Accounts vary as to the scar’s origin, but the consensus is that a) it came from a razor but b) was not the result of a shaving accident. In “Music Is My Mistress,” Ellington’s memoir, he offers several possible causes for the scar, from a cab accident to a scuffle with a member of a German dueling fraternity. But apparently music wasn’t his only mistress, and those closest to the great composer, pianist and orchestra leader say the wound was inflicted by his wife, Edna, when she found out he was sleeping with another woman.
Whatever the cause, the scar did nothing to detract from Ellington’s urbane good looks. And it does remind us that our greatest artists are as flawed as we ordinary folk are. “Ellington is the most complex and paradoxical individual that I’ve ever known,” said one intimate, and Teachout notes that his subject was both a deeply religious man and an insatiable philanderer, as well as one who often claimed sole songwriting credit for what were collaborations with the great Billy Strayhornand others. But at least he was no hypocrite; Ellington did it his way and said so proudly. After his death, his son Mercer found a note among his father’s papers that read, “I’m easy to please. I just want to have everybody in the palm of my hand.”
The son of a butler and the grandson of a slave, Edward Kennedy Ellington “carried himself like a prince of the realm.” When he was taking piano lessons as a child, nothing affected him as much as hearing a ragtime piece called “Junk Man Rag.” The tune struck him as a kind of artistic signature, and he resolved earlier on to play so that people would know he was the one playing.
His fitful education ended when he dropped out of high school, although not before studying commercial art, a pursuit that paid off when he started a sign-painting business about the time he became a professional musician. The two career paths converged in a uniquely American way: “When customers came for posters to advertise a dance,” Ellington recalled, “I would ask them what they were doing about their music. When they wanted to hire a band, I would ask them who’s painting their signs.”
But as any entrepreneur will tell you, ingenuity alone doesn’t pay the bills. Instead, what might be called Ellington’s Rule of Four Rights applies: One of his favorite sayings was that you had to be “at the right place at the right time, doing the right thing before the right people.” In his case, the place and time was America during the Jazz Age. Although he came to hate the word “jazz” (he considered it low-class and restrictive), he and his musicians played a kind of music that was highly sought after. Unlike old-fashioned saloons, the speakeasies that bloomed during Prohibition welcomed women and hired dance bands to entertain a raucous clientele.
The new liberties applied only to whites, though. Harlem’s Cotton Club barred “colored” patrons, once turning away W.C. Handy, the composer of “St. Louis Blues,” from a show of his own songs. But Ellington let neither racial discrimination nor any of the other pitfalls that await an artist get in his way as he forged a career that led to countless prizes, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Richard Nixon. He also received the ecstatic praise of such musical contemporaries as Percy Grainger, who said, “The three greatest composers who ever lived are Bach, Delius and Duke Ellington.”
The club life had a way of chewing up its devotees, and many a contemporary fell prey to what one of Ellington’s musicians called the TOO-sies, which stand as a sort of counterpoint to the Four Rights: “TOO much money, TOO much drinking, TOO many women, while TOO young.” Although his gargantuan appetite for all of life’s pleasures got him into hot water more than once, music really was Ellington’s mistress. He cleaved to her as to no other, and she gave him and us such enduring tunes as “Satin Doll,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Mood Indigo” and “I’m Beginning to See the Light.”
For all of Ellington’s achievements, his self-absorption and other personal failings may have led Teachout to view him somewhat sourly, as when he describes the older man as “a seventy-year-old whose tank was nearly out of gas.” For sheer fandom, one might turn to Harvey G. Cohen’s study “Duke Ellington’s America,” which accords its subject a status akin to that of Walt Whitman — or cue up pianist Marcus Roberts’s album “In Honor of THE Duke,” the liner notes to which say that Ellington’s legacy amounts to a “fertile, deep reservoir of music to build on for the next millennium.”
We all have scars, but only one of us (well, with a little help) gave the world “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”
Kirby is the Robert O. Lawton distinguished professor of English at Florida State University.
A Life of Duke Ellington
By Terry Teachout
Gotham. 483 pp. $30