Duke Ellington's America, By Harvey G Cohen

Christopher Hirst
Friday 13 January 2012 01:00

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.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments