Thursday Book: A sparkling orchestration

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The Independent Culture
EVEN AT the very end, suspended between pain and opiate euphoria, Duke Ellington was still saddled by physical wants, still capable of a surreal musical poetry. Propped up in bed in New York's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, he demanded "Kisses, kisses... more kisses" from his sister Ruth, the last woman with him before he "took flight". And whereas his friend and collaborator Billy Strayhorn, already gone seven years when Duke died in 1974, had marked his own decline and imminent passing with the achingly elegiac "Blood Count", Ellington scribbled out blunt haiku about disease on hospital notepaper: "Vooraes - Lympi. Braun - Exploration. Austin - Lung Penetration. King - Lung Penetration. Rielly - Barlum... Cob treat. Nurses off. Tumour stop shrinking. Hiccoughs. Cough. Hyman: Outlook. Blood in urine. Susceptibility. No fertility. Disease to everything..."

How do the diagnostics run, how were the specialists assigned, in Duke's earlier years? Blanton and Carney - foundations; Hodges - lyrical beauty; Gonsalves - improvisational frenzy; Greer - steady march of time and memory; Strayhorn - yin side. The susceptibility had always been there, to women most obviously, but also to the music he had described in an underrated and surprisingly honest autobiography as his "mistress".

Ellington is a more opaque figure even than Stuart Nicholson's earlier subject, Billie Holiday, not because his official memoir was so blatantly ghosted and fictionalised but because he had taken such pains over so many years to control the flow of gossip, to shape an image of unruffled urbanity. Not even Frank Sinatra had such a virtuoso grasp of press management, though to be fair the press always recognised that Sinatra was likelier to yield up spicier copy.

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born 100 years ago today, on 29 April 1899. Recent studies, not least David Hajdu's biography of his collaborator Billy Strayhorn, were intended to sound a cautiously sceptical note, suggesting that the Ellington canon was the work of many hands and voices, a collegiate process rather than an example of inspired auteurism. The roles of individual interpreters were always crucial, but one measure of Ellington's gifts was his instinct for key recruitment.

Jimmy Blanton, the bassist, and Harry Carney, the baritone saxophonist, gave the classic bands of the Forties their deeply rooted sound. Johnny Hodges took the slightly raw, uncertainly pitched jazz saxophone to new heights of technical perfection and expressive beauty. Strayhorn tempered Duke's long-form obsessions with perfect song structures, while at Newport in 1956, back to back with Strayhorn's "Newport Festival Suite", Paul Gonsalves blew 27 choruses on the little-used "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue", demonstrating that jazz could still match the excitement of the new rock'n'roll.

Centenary celebrations have confirmed a subtle shift of emphasis back towards Ellington's individual genius. Nicholson's book is not a musicological study, but an effort to get close to a well-defended and somewhat mythologised personality. It is an oral biography, patiently weaving together published sources, public documents such as newspaper articles and reviews, and newly recorded interviews, to create a compulsively readable and well- rounded "portrait" - which is not the same as analytical biography - of an artist who increasingly seems to sit at the very centre of 20th- century musical history.

A quarter of a century ago, colonels in East Grinstead and Cheltenham ladies in twinsets and pearls bristled with outrage when Ellington was Radio 3's Composer of the Week. The same accolade now ruffles no feathers but, while the musical argument has seemed to be won, Ellington himself has remained fugitive until now. Nicholson chooses his sources with care, annotates sensibly, and properly relies on authoritative voices such as the drummer Sonny Greer, who not only kept time for the early band but also became its unofficial historian.

Ellington was elegant, priapic, fiercely intelligent, shrewd and naiveby turns, possessed of a sensibility that marked a sea change in musical language - a vast, oceanic storehouse of ideas that makes the frantic hard-scrabble of bebop seem like a private code. Nicholson has orchestrated the elements of the life and the voices that bear witness to them with a skill worthy of Ellington himself.