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Biography tries to get to bottom of bandleader

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Ellington was 'a riddle without an answer, an unknowable man who hid behind a high wall of ornate utterances and flowery compliments,' biographer Terry Teachout writes.

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Ellington was 'a riddle without an answer, an unknowable man who hid behind a high wall of ornate utterances and flowery compliments,' biographer Terry Teachout writes.

DUKE Ellington, the famous bandleader whose career spanned close to six decades, was a complex man who presented a deliberate image of himself to the public.

Biographer and Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout looks behind the dual facade in his new book Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham Books, $31.50).

He calls Ellington "a riddle without an answer, an unknowable man who hid behind a high wall of ornate utterances and flowery compliments that grew higher as he grew older."

It was more than just pride that kept Ellington from admitting flaws, of which he had a few, from serial womanizing to hogging credit from collaborators. He felt he represented African-Americans and had to maintain a near-godlike public image to keep detractors from using his mistakes to denigrate all black people.

Ellington was a mighty force in jazz (even though he didn't like the name itself because he considered it low-class and restrictive, giving a negative image to African-Americans).

Yet his bands, full of stellar musicians over the years, made so much beautiful music labelled as jazz.

Not everything Ellington touched turned to gold. Yet his acknowledged list of masterpieces, including In a Sentimental Mood, Mood Indigo and Reminiscing in Tempo, had a broader reach than anyone else's.

Chalk that up to talent, longevity and his own definition of good luck: "being at the right place at the right time, doing the right things before the right people."

However, understanding the deeply religious man who could create such great music while stealing credit for similar achievements by his celebrated collaborator Billy Strayhorn and other musicians, even as Ellington manager Irving Mills was taking credit for the Duke's work, is not an easy task.

"He talked not to explain himself but to conceal himself," writes Teachout, also the author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong. "Everyone knows him -- yet no one knows him. That was the way he wanted it."

Ellington rode many waves of popularity -- and the resulting troughs -- through a career that began with his professional debut in 1917 and ended shortly before his death in 1974, at 75.

He sometimes had to resort to smaller groups, but he mostly kept a big band going (even when he couldn't afford it), paid his musicians top dollar and did all he could to protect them when touring in the racist South.

His relationship with composer (Take the A Train) and arranger Billy Strayhorn was both beneficial and turbulent. Ellington took credit for some of Strayhorn's work and relied on him immensely.

Strayhorn accepted it for the most part because as a gay man in the '40s and '50s, it was easier for him to live his life within the security of the Ellington organization.

Eventually, Strayhorn's resentment got the better of him, causing a deep rift between the two men and causing Strayhorn to become a problem drinker.

Ellington was probably a genius and, like many a genius, he found it difficult to admit his faults. You have to weigh those flaws against the man's contributions to the musical world.

"If anyone doubts that he still matters, one need only look at the way in which America's cultural institutions now treat him," Teachout writes.

In 1987 Jazz at Lincoln Center co-founder Wynton Marsalis placed Ellington's music at the heart of its programming. The next year the Smithsonian Institution acquired his musical manuscripts and personal papers. In 1981, Sophisticated Ladies, a revue based on the Duke's songs, gave him the Broadway success that eluded him in life. And in 1999 he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize after earlier being deprived of it.

"Everyone knows him -- yet no one knows him. That was the way he wanted it," Teachout writes.

But we have the music (look in any jazz lover's collection) and we can still savour the image of the suave, sophisticated man at the piano, leading bands with some of the best musicians we'll ever hear.

chris.smith@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2014 D3

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