Art Works Blog

Duking It Out with Terry Teachout

It ain’t always easy to get recognition as an artist, particularly in Washington. We’ve got plenty of memorials for presidents and world leaders, and there’s no shortage of statues portraying generals on horses. But only one musician has been commemorated with a statue of his own: pianist and jazz composer Duke Ellington. In fact, the native Washingtonian also has his own bridge, high school, mural, apartment building, and coin (his face graces the “tails” side of our state quarter). Of course, these tributes are only commensurate with Ellington’s achievements: he composed over 3,000 songs, won 13 Grammy Awards, and helped put jazz on the map as a serious art form.

But for all our pride, how well do we really know the man behind the music? According to Terry Teachout, a librettist, playwright, and Wall Street Journal drama critic, not all that well. In Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, Teachout attempts to crack the meticulous veneer Ellington maintained with both his adoring public and his closest associates. Published in October, the biography sifts through Ellington’s womanizing ways, ad hoc musical knowledge, and collaborative compositional style—which didn’t always result in collaborative credit or royalties. Rather than detract from Ellington’s accomplishments however, these newly researched disclosures make him, and in turn his music, all the more intriguing. Teachout, who also wrote Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, recently answered questions for us by e-mail about his latest biography.

NEA: Do you remember the first time you heard Duke Ellington? What was that like?

TERRY TEACHOUT: I do. It was in 1968, when I listened to my father’s copy of In a Mellotone, an anthology of Ellington’s 1940-42 recordings. He loved big-band music, so I grew up hearing a lot of it, but I realized even then that Ellington’s music sounded nothing like that of (say) Benny Goodman or Count Basie or Stan Kenton. The difference overwhelmed me, and though I knew nothing about him at the time, I was determined at once to find out who he was—and hear more of his music.

NEA: In your biography, it becomes apparent that even those who knew Ellington personally were not necessarily privy to his interior life. Is there anyone you believe he ever fully let in? And how do you think this impenetrable, carefully groomed image affected Ellington’s career, and now, his legacy?

TEACHOUT: No, I don’t think so. He was too careful, too cautious, for that. As for the effects of the image on his career, they were absolutely central to his success: he wouldn’t have made the kind of impression that he did in the ‘30s and ‘40s if he hadn’t positioned himself in the way that he did. I doubt, though, that his near-impervious façade of elegance has much of anything to do with the way he’s perceived today, though it certainly makes the biographer’s job harder.

NEA: With the benefit of hindsight, how would you describe Ellington’s impact on American music, or perhaps culture as a whole? Is this the same impact you believe he may have hoped for?

TEACHOUT: Outside of the intrinsic artistic value of his music (which is, of course, the most important thing about Ellington), I think his contemporary impact on American culture was at least as much a social one as an aesthetic one. He was the first black man who was widely perceived as a serious and significant artist in white America, and his success in vaulting over that barrier of perception was a source of immense collective pride in black America. It was exactly what he set out to do, too, which is one of the reasons why he went to such lengths to cultivate his image as a man apart from the common run of jazz bandleaders—black and white alike.

Portrait of Terry Teachout

Terry Teachout. Photo by Ken Howard

NEA: How do you view the relationship between Ellington the man and Ellington the musician? Was there a particular aspect of either that was especially interesting/challenging to research or write about?

TEACHOUT: They can’t be disentangled. The man wrote the music, and the music reflects the man. What I found most interesting about Ellington the man was the way in which his adult personality was shaped by his having been born into the black middle class of turn-of-the-century Washington, DC. His class background went much deeper and is far more consequential than is commonly realized. As for the music, the biggest challenge I faced was explaining the radically collaborative nature of his compositional process, which is completely unlike what one finds in the world of classical music.

NEA: Are there any special pressures when it comes to writing about jazz giants like Ellington and Armstrong, both in terms of how often they’ve been written about and their general cultural status?

TEACHOUT: Not really, no. Of course you don’t want to write a book about somebody who’s already been written about extensively unless you feel you can bring something new to the table, but I felt pretty sure of my ability to do that.

NEA: What distinguishes a musician as someone you want to write about from other musicians whose work or persona you might admire, or perhaps even prefer?

TEACHOUT: I look for subjects with larger-than-life personalities who led eventful and dramatic lives. That’s what makes their personal stories interesting to tell in book form, and it’s not always true of important artists. I love Count Basie’s music, for example, but I can’t imagine wanting to write a full-length biography of him.

NEA: Do you find yourself listening to Ellington’s music differently since writing his biography?

TEACHOUT: No. I listened to it differently while I was writing the book—more analytically, since I was engaged in the ongoing task of explaining how it works. But after Duke was finished, I went back to listening for pleasure, the same way I’d previously been listening to Ellington’s music for four decades. I’m not “on duty” anymore, if you know what I mean!

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