Paperbacks

A Portrait of Duke Ellington by Stuart Nicholson | My Garden Book by Jamaica Kincaid | Be Cool by Elmore Leonard | Postcards from Kitchens Abroad by Diane Holuigue | Wales by Jan Morris

A Portrait of Duke Ellington by Stuart Nicholson (Pan, £12.99, 538pp) This is not only a portrait of the towering genius of 20th-century music, but also of the band of 15 or so top-flight musicians maintained by Ellington - he referred to them as his "expensive gentlemen" - from the early Twenties until his death in 1974. Nicholson's decision to use the fashionable "collage" style of biography, pioneered by George Plimpton in his life of Truman Capote, is triumphantly vindicated. Mainly using the voices of sidesmen - in particular, Ellington's articulate son Mercer - he traces Duke's meteoric rise from Harlem juke-joints, via his residency at the exclusive but racketeer-run Cotton Club, to his adoption by European high society. Prince George, the Queen's father, was a particularly ardent fan in the early Thirties.

By 1955, however, the Ellington band had plunged to a nadir, playing "second on the bill to the Dancing Waters, a water fountain display". Though given a lowly slot at the Newport Jazz Festival the following year, a legendary performance of 27 straight choruses by tenor-player Paul Gonsalves took them to the top of the charts once more.

Nicholson maintains a lively tempo, switching between musical and other matters. As passionate about sex as music, Duke described the act in similar terms: "An aria of the sex symphony which...[works] itself to a screaming, bursting climax of indescribable beauty and rapture". Each quote throws a new, sometimes unexpected sidelight on Ellington's complex personality: his galloping hypochondria, his addiction to life on the move, his withering dismissal of racism as "the skin disease", his blasé attitude to drink and drug-taking among musicians. Nicholson has produced a life that is a worthy companion to Ellington's incomparable music. CH

My Garden Book by Jamaica Kincaid (Vintage, £6.99, 177pp) One Mother's Day, Antigua-born writer Jamaica Kincaid was given a spade, hoe and rake and immediately went out to dig in her Vermont backyard. These reflections on gardens and gardeners sprang from her new passion, and include her thoughts on the Chelsea Flower Show, wisteria, and the purgative-sounding properties of the name Peregrine Worsthorne. The best essay, however, is about inside rather than out, and her love for her home - domestic space being defined as anywhere "in which anyone might feel comfortable expelling any bodily fluid".

Be Cool by Elmore Leonard (Penguin, £6.99, 292pp) Brooklyn mobster turned Hollywood producer Chili Palmer, who first appeared in Get Shorty, is one of Elmore Leonard's more attractive characters. Never violent, he's considerate to his lady friends, and, on the big screen, gets to be played by John Travolta. When it comes to script development Chili works best by basing his story on a "real life" character, in this case, wannabe singer Linda Moon. Moving among the sharks of the LA music business, 75-year old Leonard shows himself up on the Spice Girls and the subtleties of ska and funk.

Postcards from Kitchens Abroad by Diane Holuigue (New Holland, £14.99, 218pp) A deeply authentic clutch of recipes from a globe-trotting Aussie. After touring Lyons with Paul Bocuse ("he squeezes an autumn mushroom and decides they are not on the menu today"), she gives his recipe for "salmon cooked on one side". When Madhur Jaffrey tells her "Curry does not exist in India!", she offers a trio of Rajasthan specialities. Pursuing a rigorous "When in Rome" policy towards menus, she has "double-thick porterhouse" in Argentina, couscous in Morocco, salt cod in Barcelona... All are as mouth-watering as they are genuine.

Wales by Jan Morris (Penguin, £7.99, 259pp) Jan Morris's passionate, droll prose is ideally suited to her home country. Her epic account ranges from the "blazing eye" of the Welsh sheepdog (which "may put the visitor in mind of rabies injections") to Dylan Thomas's fatal Anglo-Welshism, "divided not only in loyalties but personality". It is pleasing to know that Llandudno has three streets named after the Queen of Romania, who visited the resort in 1890. Oddly, this revised edition includes A A Gill's 1998 view of the Welsh ("stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly"), but nothing about Ron Davies's "moment of madness" on Clapham Common.

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