Underscoring the music of Ellington

November 18, 1993|By Lawrence Freeny | Lawrence Freeny,Contributing Writer

This lively biography, through emphasizing the king-sized contributions of its subject to American popular music, provides a perspective that should interest a general readership and not mostly jazz enthusiasts.

John Edward Hasse, in his stated intent to stress "the development and evolution of Ellington the musician" and to delineate the two inseparable careers of band leader and composer, has done exactly that.

His theme, supported by extensive research and Ellington quotations, is expanded so judiciously that the 404-page volume seems fittingly concise.

Mr. Hasse, curator of American Music at the Smithsonian Institution, has also organized an exhibition, "Beyond Category: The Musical Genius of Duke Ellington," that includes film, photos, memorabilia and music. This Smithsonian show opened at the Museum of the City of New York in mid-October and will remain five months before touring other cities.

Prior accounts of Ellington's 50-year career include his autobiography and the biography by his son, Mercer, who, after playing trumpet and acting as the orchestra's road manager, became the band's leader upon the Duke's death at age 75 in 1974.

Ellington's chronology includes his youthful start in Washington, the gradual rise to fame; accommodation to modern jazz (the bebop sounds of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and others); the economic hard times of maintaining a big band; and the explosive force of rock and roll.

Through it all, Ellington displayed his talents as composer, pianist and orchestra leader. He and the band performed in vaudeville, dances, jazz clubs and concert halls, and also in recordings, movies, radio and television.

Events and anecdotes reveal fragile egos among his musicians, the constancy of many and defection of a few (followed by some of the latter group's return to the orchestra's fold). Notable is the productive interplay of the leader's creativity with that of Billy Strayhorn, the composer ("Take the A Train") and arranger.

The Duke's composing was almost compulsive. He would awaken at 3 or 4 a.m., write the notes, then sound them on his piano. Or he might write while aboard a private railway coach or chartered bus between concert engagements.

Ellington was born into a prosperous black family in Washington, where he began playing. Moving to New York in 1923, at age 24, he became a prominent bandleader at Harlem's Cotton Club, where black entertainers performed for largely white audiences. Mr. Hasse writes:

"If Washington provided Ellington his basic musical education, Manhattan would be his graduate school and more than he reckoned on, it would be a school of hard knocks. Here he would encounter competition . . . and realize that his fortune lay with leading a band with a distinctive sound . . ."

That sound differed, in part, by including "weird chords," as one of his sidemen said. More broadly, there was an identifiable style of playing his compositions such as "Mood Indigo" and "Solitude."

The leader generously spotlighted several players, bringing fame to such sidemen as Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Harry Carney and Shorty Baker. The Duke did some solos and, in seeming humility before audiences, referred to himself as "the piano player."

He and his wife, Mildred Dixon, had two children, Mercer and Ruth. But after separating in 1928 they were neither reconciled nor divorced. In 1938 there was a new paramour, Beatrice Ellis. Mr. Hasse's lack of emphasis on Ellington's personal life is consistent with his intent to focus on the musical career.

Ellington's Christian beliefs are shown in the many compositions with a religious theme. "Come Sunday," a part of the "Concert of Sacred Music," is perhaps the most widely known.

Once asked for comment on having been denied access to restaurants and hotels, Ellington replied: "I took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues." Later, he took a more activist stance toward promoting integration.

In 1969, he was honored at a White House celebration of his 70th birthday, with President Nixon awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A U.S. postage stamp honoring Ellington was issued in 1986, and he also received 17 honorary doctorates and the French Legion of Honor.

Now, as in his life, Duke Ellington remains an American original.

(Mr. Freeny is a writer who lives in Baltimore.)


Title: "Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington"

Author: John Edward Hasse

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 404 pages, $25

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