In the galaxy of remarkable individuals who defined jazz as a new mode of expression, two shine with the strongest and most enduring force: Louis Armstrong and Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington.
Both were charismatic and persistently original, and although they had little formal musical training, they strode the global stage with a confidence equal to that of any other great artist of their generation; but in most other ways they were quite different. Armstrong was, in all phases of his career, essentially a soloist, whose stunning virtuosity refashioned the idiom of the trumpet; but irrespective of his eloquence as a player, he never quite lost the scent of the New Orleans bars where his phenomenal talent was first heard. Ellington, the son of a Washington DC butler, always betrayed something of the urbanity and elegance that generated his aristocratic nickname, and his achievement was of a somewhat different order.
Many argue that his ability as a pianist was always underestimated; however, the primary vehicles for his extraordinarily potent expression were his band, the music he wrote for it, the response he drew from it and the impact it had on the world of music more generally.
He was the greatest bandleader and composer in the jazz style. In a career that lasted almost exactly half a century, he created sound worlds that did not just help to configure the way that jazz was understood: more than anyone else, he defined the interaction between jazz and other forms of music, especially what can be loosely described as the classical tradition.
In Duke Ellington's America, Harvey Cohen argues that he was yet more than this: his celebrity and personal convictions made him a central figure in several issues of his time, particularly those relating to civil rights. The persistence with which Ellington described his music as "American music" hints strongly at the very interactions that Cohen explains.
Between 19 and 1932, the Ellington band - then called the Washingtonians - was the resident band in Harlem's Cotton Club, where what was, in effect, a whites-only rule was waived only for black celebrities. Here it played for dancing and floor shows. During this period, Ellington attracted the famously diverse collection of musical individuals who were to form the laboratory for his ideas for more than a decade.
When the band made its first trip to Britain in the summer of 1933, it came as the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and its reception - both critical and popular - was unprecedented because it was so new. The critic for The Times was not alone in admitting uncertainty about the values that Ellington's sound should be set against, but described it rather aptly as "a scientific application of measured and dangerous stimuli".
By the time of his death, Ellington was credited with 2,000 works, most of which were recorded. His output varied from a mass of tightly expressed three-minute numbers (defined by the duration of one side of a 78rpm disc) to the longer suites and sacred works that characterised his output from the decline of the big-band era in the 1940s. His mode of expression changed, chameleon-like, as the world changed around him, but he was seldom unconvincing. He was not without his critics, especially in his last couple of decades, but as the jazz writer Dan Morgenstern observed, a mark of Ellington's importance was the burden he carried of regularly being compared with his own past.
The quantity of musical and documentary material that the Ellington story has attracted will keep scholars occupied for generations, and this sheer mass may be the reason why the essential strand of his story is in some ways elusive: the shifting styles, the musical relationships with his players, with Billy Strayhorn (the brilliant young composer/arranger who joined him in 1939) and indeed with the wider orbits of the places and times in which he flourished. The best we have so far is not a narrative at all but rather a magisterial anthology, The Duke Ellington Reader (1993), edited and annotated by the late Mark Tucker.
Cohen's volume presents a narrative history that takes us from Ellington's early days in the black Washington enclave to the great man's death in May 1974. It is substantial, richly sourced, intelligent and, in many ways, persuasive. And unlike many other writers on Ellington, Cohen gives proper attention to all phases of Ellington's career, and in so doing unveils information that is new or has been overlooked.
He maps Ellington's personal chronology against three broad themes, each pointing to processes of change and Ellington's response to it: the impact of developments within the music industry and the influences of those who mediated these developments for him (such as Irving Mills, his early manager, and the record companies to which Ellington was contracted); the patterns of consumption and taste in America; and most persistently the question of race and equality, and how it counterpointed with the Ellington persona and the various commercial considerations within which his thoughts and actions were constrained.
This last question is an especially complex matter, and one that Cohen treats sensitively. On the one hand, Ellington has been seen as one of the most eloquent advocates for African-Americans against the dark forces of segregation; on the other, his silence and his tolerance of various status quos has been read as compliance with the malignant discrimination that prevailed in American society for the greater part of his life.
This is not an easy story to tell because it is so complicated. Ellington's musical output, through commercial necessity, varied greatly, and the challenge of dealing with such complex and at times elusive themes is formidable. Oddly, the wealth of source material increases rather than mitigates this challenge, and there are times when one feels that Cohen could have argued his thesis with greater clarity had he been more economical and not succumbed to the temptation to cite so much evidence. Nevertheless, this is an important work and one that Ellington scholarship will benefit from and draw on for new debates.
Parts of the book are especially revealing, particularly those that join Ellington to the racial interactions of his times. Interesting, too, are the sections that deal with the relationship between Ellington and his players, especially the group that came together in the 1930s and that contributed so much to his musical outlook before the arrival of Strayhorn in 1939. In matters of controversy, Cohen usually finds in Ellington's favour; for example, he writes off a little too neatly some of the grievances that many of those players nurtured about their ownership of signature numbers that originally carried only the Ellington name. On the other hand, the account of the way those same players felt the hardships and triumphs of being on the road with Ellington is indicated more thoroughly here than elsewhere, apart from the (largely unpublished) testimonies of the players themselves.
Cohen deals with music itself less authoritatively than he deals with matters of culture and context, but that is what he set out to do, and plenty of able assessments of Ellington's oeuvre can be found elsewhere.
The publisher's blurb speaks of this being "by far the most nuanced portrait" of Ellington. "Nuanced" is perhaps not the best word, because it is the weight of documentary detail rather than the subtlety of nuance that is most striking about Cohen's book, but it is a book that reminded me with considerable force of quite how remarkable its subject was.
Harvey G. Cohen is lecturer in cultural and creative industries at King's College London.
He received his doctorate in American history in 2002 at the University of Maryland. The work he produced won the 2004 Pauline Maier Best Dissertation in American History Prize from the Historical Society, the judges describing it as "well reasoned, anchored by evidence, integrated, and accessible to the public".
Before arriving at King's in 2006, Cohen was a postdoctoral fellow and resident scholar at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. He also spent three years as a teacher at Maryland.
In addition to serving on the board of the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Cohen is music supervisor for Films by Youth Inside, a Los Angeles-based programme that gives educational and creative options to young people in prison.
Duke Ellington's America
By Harvey G. Cohen
University of Chicago Press
Published 1 May 2010