Duke Ellington’s America by Harvey C. Cohen. Reviewed by Irma Liberty

Duke Ellington’s America by Harvey C. Cohen 576 pp. plus notes, published 2010.

I found about twenty books on Duke Ellington in the library and, not being a musician, but a music lover, chose this book due to my background in social science and interest in the creative process. Cohen, a cultural historian, takes a scholarly approach, portraying Ellington in terms of family, and cultural and historical background.

Although ‘scholarly’ in the sense of placing Ellington in his cultural milieu, this is not a dry, dull treatise, but a book fun to read, and led me to explore more of Ellington’s works, especially the longer pieces. It also revealed a lot about American culture and history of the era which is not common knowledge.

Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington (1899-1974) was born and raised in a middle class African American family in Washington, D.C. His family, like most of the African-American middle class then in D.C., believed the way to improve race relations was through individual achievement. Presenting yourself with dignity, being well-mannered and well-dressed was very important.

When Duke started out black and white music was segregated. Black musicians were expected, like those in minstrel shows, to wear blackface, clownish clothes and speak in dialect. Jazz was not a well respected music at this time and, in fact, was considered by many people, both black and white, to be associated with wicked and sinful behavior.

Ellington, however, refused to play the clown and freely mingled with other races and classes to learn from them, incorporating what he learned into his music. He formed an integrated orchestra and, due to continuing success, was able to insist that black people be allowed to attend his performances as well, something unheard of, even in some Harlem theaters. This is one of many interesting facts in the book, which tells you a lot about America in this era, while telling Duke’s story.

As an African-American growing up in this time. music and church were a natural part of his large extended family life. Although he greatly enjoyed performing, when he was off stage, he preferred solitude. He was a good pianist, but always considered his band as his instrument and fed off the interactions with the audience and band. He was driven to constantly compose new music and, while he always obliged his audience’s desire to hear his old standards, he never rested on his laurels. He kept growing, expanding his reach.

He had some help with this. While based in Harlem, he became acquainted with a music publisher and former talent manager named Irving Mills. Although Mills’ primary interest was in making money, he saw the potential in Duke Ellington’s music and positioned him to appeal to a wider audience through the new media of radio and phonograph recordings.

Using his national radio show, in the 1930’s Mills promoted Duke Ellington,and expanded his audience greatly. With this increased exposure, he and Ellington were able to gradually change the previous perception of black music as ‘primitive’. Duke Ellington, a Black American, now came to be seen as an important American composer and started to compose longer works.

One of the first of these pieces ,“Black, Brown and Beige”, a jazz symphony, premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1943 and sold out, leaving about two thousand people outside without tickets. This piece established him as a unique force in American music and led him to write more extended, sophisticated music, such as “My People” ( a musical review comprised of short pieces, Chicago 1960) and “Suite Thursday” (Monterey Jazz Festival, 1963).

Due to this increasing prominence and popularity he was engaged by the State Department as a ‘cultural ambassador’ in 1963 and traveled to the Middle East, inspiring his composition “Far East Suite”.Two more State Dept overseas tours followed, all attended by thousands in each city. He was a major factor in overcoming the stereotypical perception of America abroad as a country filled with prejudice and race riots.

While Ellington, like everyone, experienced hardships and sorrows, he didn’t dwell on them. Music was his gift and mode of expression, the way he dealt with forces in his life. Tellingly, he titled his autobiography, “Music Is My Mistress”.

We may have forgotten Duke’s great successes in Europe in the early 1930’s, the impact of his Carnegie Hall concerts, his role as a cultural ambassador for the State Department in the 1950’s, his financial generosity to civil rights groups and the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award in the 1960’s. But we now have integrated bands, orchestras and audiences, a world-wide respect for American music and a continuous stream of jazz musicians who continue to break the boundaries of jazz.

Of his many extended compositions, I am particularly fond of the “Far East Suite” * which I have listened to repeatedly over the years. “The Duke Ellington Carnegie Hall Concert” (January 1943) contains “Black and Tan Fantasy” * (1927) and the three movement forty-five minute long “Black, Brown and Tan” as well as a shorter piece, “Blue Belle of Harlem”(1938) a little over six minutes long. The latter is notable for some voicings used which sounded quite dissonant by the standards of that day.

At the beginning of his career Duke’s focus was on putting to music the feelings and lives of black people but, in later years, he expanded this concept and, thereafter always referred to his music as “American Music”. Duke Ellington, an American original.

Irma Liberty

* Here are a couple of short selections that may inspire you to listen to more:

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