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The Life of Duke Ellington

Terry Teachout, the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, won acclaim for his previous jazz biography, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Selection Mar/Apr 2010).

The Topic: Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington is generally considered the greatest jazz composer of the 20th century. The son of a butler and the grandson of a slave, Ellington had a middle-class upbringing in Washington, D.C., but he moved to Harlem in 1923. Although he dropped out of high school, he found success first as a visual artist (with a sign-painting business) and then as a self-taught musician. Many of his 1500 compositions have become standards. However, Teachout carefully considers accusations of plagiarism: Ellington borrowed and blended others' styles throughout his career, such as that of prodigy composer Billy Strayhorn, a chief collaborator who has generally been overlooked. From the womanizing to the elusive personality to the career highlights, Duke brings to light Ellington's life.

Gotham. 496 pages. $30. ISBN: 9781592407491

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"By Teachout's own admission, he doesn't exactly decode the Duke-the man was never candid enough to honestly reveal himself-but Duke does provide rich context for the story of one of America's singular artists. ... Helpfully, [Teachout] includes a list of 50 'key' Ellington recordings; if you're only casually familiar with his music, it might be worth it to give them a listen before giving Duke a read." CHRIS FORAN

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Mr. Teachout possesses an astonishing familiarity with the music of Ellington and his contemporaries. ... It's a very thorough survey, linear in structure and moving from one hit recording to the next." ROB ZELERS

San Francisco Chronicle

"The personal details are fascinating, but it's the music that counts, and Teachout is especially good at describing and commenting on the compositions of a man who when young also practiced visual art. ... [T]hanks to this frank and sympathetic biography-whose every page is studded with sharp phrases and keen insights-we now seem to know Duke Ellington as well as we ever will or need to." TOM NOLAN

NY Times Book Review

"The facts and stories [Teachout] relates aren't new, but rarely have they had such a compelling narrative flow or ring of reliability. ... Teachout writes in an earthbound style marked by sound scholarship and easy readability." JAMES GAVIN

Tampa Bay Times

"Teachout explores Ellington's personal life, which was earthier and more turbulent than his always elegant on-stage manner, but Duke is really a biography of a band, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, peppered with mini bios of its many eminent members over the years. ... Teachout gives us a rich portrait of the man, his music and his era." COLETTE BANCROFT

USA Today

"While [Louis] Armstrong was open and unguarded, Ellington revealed only what he wanted you to see in an effort to maintain respectability. Not surprisingly, Teachout finds mystery more intriguing than likability." BIL DESOWITZ

Washington Post

"For all of Ellington's achievements, his self-absorption and other personal failings may have led Teachout to view him somewhat sourly. ... [I]t does remind us that our greatest artists are as flawed as we ordinary folk are." DAVID KIRBY


Teachout, himself a jazz bassist, infuses his biographies with technical detail-so much so that they may prove taxing for the lay reader who is unfamiliar with musical terminology. Those readers-in fact, all-would have enjoyed a companion compact disc that could serve as a soundtrack and give aural examples of Teachout's discussions. Still, Teachout's writing is knowledgeable and chronological, giving a clear picture of the period of time, as well as of Ellington's wider African-American context. Duke also relies heavily on archival interviews, including one with Duke's son, Mercer Ellington, which adds valuable perspective. As with Pops, Teachout provides a nuanced perspective on a flawed and sometimes troubled life.

By Terry Teachout
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Author:Teachout, Terry
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2013
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