Chicago £14.50 (720pp). £13.05 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Duke Ellington's America, By Harvey G Cohen
This book starts with a conundrum. Why has the man that many regard as the greatest musician of the 20th century never been the subject of a Hollywood biopic? The answer can be found in a 1974 exchange between a journalist and Ellington's long-term collaborator Billy Strayhorn, about a projected film. Journalist: "I think the story is probably a racial theme, I mean, that's the theme. The accomplishment." Strayhorn: "Well, no, I don't think it should be racial. He's not racial. He is an individual and he has set himself up."
Ellington's panache and assurance had their roots in his middle-class Washington childhood in the early 1900s. Cohen notes that black children of that class and era were "taught to command, rather than demand, respect for the race". As a result, Ellington "subverted stereotypes about how blacks dressed, acted and created".
Even though his prodigious, restless talent ensured enduring success, Ellington "still found himself facing prejudice on an everyday basis". This ranged from the "jungle music" clichés demanded at the Cotton Club, where Ellington made his name in a residency from 1927-31, to a shocking incident when he was invited to dinner at Yale University in the late Thirties. When a student announced, "I don't eat with niggers" and walked out, an observer reported, "Duke didn't bat an eye... and said, 'Gentlemen, let us enjoy our repast.'"
If such ineffable cool is at odds with the heightened drama of Hollywood, the same applies to Ellington's more ambitious compositions. Cohen notes that his deeply researched 1943 composition Black, Brown and Beige: A Tone Parallel of the American Negro is "To this day... not an immediately penetrable work." Ellington maintained that that title "has to do with the state of mind, not the colour of the skin."
In a series of thematic chapters focusing on topics including money, religion and politics, Cohen shows that Ellington was all of a piece. The man emerges as energetic and impressive as his music. Ellington's constant re-invention, Cohen insists, surpassed all musical peers. Since he devotes a chapter to "Fighting Nostalgia", it is surprising that Cohen does not mention the experimental 1962 trio album Money Jungle with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Still, this exemplary study makes a good case that for persistence and creativity, Duke was nonpareil.
filmFilm producers sue Warner Bros for $75m over Hobbit films
sportNapoli 2 Arsenal 0: Gunners must now face either Real Madrid, PSG, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid or Barcelona in knock-out stages
Swedish stars ask fans for £195 pledges on crowd-funding website
voicesJust when you thought you could find a man, get married, and have a baby by the age of 35... it turns out you’re too late, says Grace Dent
musicAs Mariah Carey and Noddy Holder rake in the royalties from their classics, why there hasn't been a decent festive hit for 20 years?
theatreAuthor Daniel Rosenthal recalls the mishaps that almost brought the curtain down on the likes of John Gielgud and Diana Rigg
lifeAs the Royal Mail plans to phase out deliveries on two wheels, it's no wonder posties are in a spin
musicThe 21-year-old beat Ella Eyre and Chlöe Howl to win the honour
lifeFull of the joys and want to help your fellow man? December isn't the time to do it
techLuke Blackall reports on precision engineered prams and babygros that monitor your child 24-7
Arts & Ents blogs
The desolation of the Weinstein brothers: Film producers sue Warner Bros for $75m over Hobbit films
Christmas songs: the best and the worst
X Factor winners: Where are they now?
Your Money, Money, Money please - Abba ask fans for £195 pledges on crowd-funding website
Lost Peter Sellers films Dearth of a Salesman and Insomnia Is Good for You hailed as the movie equivalent of 'finding Dead Sea Scrolls'
- 1 Nelson Mandela memorial: ‘Bogus’ interpreter made mockery of Barack Obama’s tribute in Soweto
- 2 John McAfee's $100 'anti-NSA' device: 'this is coming and cannot be stopped'
- 3 French café starts charging extra to rude customers
- 4 Is Facebook making us forget? Study shows that taking pictures ruin memories
- 5 Australia incest case: Filthy and severely deformed children found in remote farming community after generations of inbreeding