Terry Teachout on Ellington (PT. 1)


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Back in the early 2000s, Terry Teachout and I were sitting in my living room listening to Erroll Garner when I asked him what his motivation was for writing. Terry thought for a moment and said, “To connect with average readers in the simplest and most engaging way possible so I can turn them on to artists they may not know or don't know much about."

Terry is literary safecracker of the highest order. No one springs the locked dial with greater elan and style than he does. While researching and writing Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham), Terry listened carefully to the tumblers, using a clean analytic narrative to reveal Ellington like he's never been exposed before and giving us a fine sense of what made him tick. A challenge if ever there was one, since Ellington is easily jazz's most enigmatic and Sphinx-like great.

As a critic, Terry isn't shy about praising what he loves about Ellington and coming down hard on the flaws—all while telling a compelling story. Terry's rare combination of curiosity, knowledge and judgement makes his Ellington biography robust and rewarding. I recently caught up with Terry, 57, to chat about Ellington and his new book...

JazzWax: According to your biography, Ellington was highly superstitious. What do you think this tells us about him—that he was unsure deep down or fearful that fate could take it all away at any time?

Terry Teachout: Ellington was widely, wildly superstitious. Somewhere in Duke I say that “a catalogue raisonné of his phobias would fill a closely packed page or two." The funniest one, I suppose, is that he wouldn't buy socks or shoes for anyone because he was sure, as his son Mercer put it, that to do so would cause them to “walk away from him." I'm not sure, though, what—if anything—these superstitions tell us about his interior life. Mercer thought that they stemmed from his having been overprotected by his parents in early childhood, which seems to make sense of a sort.

Beyond that, I'm reluctant to impose any after-the-fact psychological “explanations" on his quirks. I don't go in for psychobiography. I think it's sufficient to report Ellington's superstitions, then let the reader make up his or her own mind about what they may or may not have meant.  

JW: You write that Ellington borrowed extensively from other musicians. Do you view him then as a great original composer or a brilliant recycler who leveraged scraps to create bigger, more dramatic works?

TT: He was both. The Ellington who cobbled together Sophisticated Lady out of a pair of melodic fragments supplied by Lawrence Brown and Otto Hardwick was, to use your apt phrase, a “brilliant recycler." But the Ellington who wrote masterpieces like Ko-Ko from scratch, on the other hand, was a truly great original composer—and you mustn't forget that most of his music was completely original.

Nevertheless, you can't understand Ellington's compositional method without fully acknowledging the pivotal contributions that were made by the members of his band—Billy Strayhorn and Johnny Hodges in particular—and without regretting his occasional reluctance to give them proper credit for what they did.   By the way, I think I'm the first of Ellington's biographers to have noticed and discussed in detail the revealing fact that the most prominent and significant of his borrowings are usually to be found in his pop songs—Sophisticated Lady, of course, but also Mood Indigo, In a Sentimental Mood, Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me, Don't Get Around Much Anymore and lots of other hits.  

JW: Some find Ellington's music today rococo or verbose—meaning the music can sound decorative, like someone using fancy words to impress rather than speaking plainly. Is that fair criticism?

TT: I almost never hear that tendency in Ellington's work. Some of it is complex, some of it powerfully direct. Scarcely any of it, though, is gratuitously decorative. What could be more straightforward, more to the point, than a three-minute masterpiece like Cottontail or The Mooche?

JW: What was it about Ellington's personality that won over so many powerful people in the media and government as his career progressed? He clearly understood power unlike any other jazz musician.

TT: The key to understanding Ellington's worldly success is that he was a middle-class black, a member by birth of what the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier called the “black bourgeoisie." To put it bluntly, he was presentable—beautifully dressed, gorgeously spoken—and that made him socially acceptable to whites who looked askance at less polished black artists.

Ellington knew it, too. He always saw himself as a representative of his fellow blacks. He felt that it was his responsibility, as he put it, to “act in behalf of the race." In order to do that, he had to tend with ceaseless care to his public image. By doing that, he also built up his reputation as a serious composer. It was a shrewd calculation on his part—but one that came naturally to him because of his family background.

Tomorrow, Part 2 of my interview with Terry Teachout on his new book.

JazzWax pages. You'll find Terry Teachout's Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham) here.

JazzWax tracks: Duke Ellington Queen's Suite, Goutelas Suite and Uwis Suite have just been remastered and reissued by Concord on The Ellington Suites as part of the label's Original Jazz Classics series. You'll find it here.

JazzWax clips: Here are a few terrific Ellington clips...

It Don't Mean a Thing (1943)...

Take the A Train (1943)...

Stormy Weather and Bundle of Blues (1933)...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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