cover image Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington

Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington

Terry Teachout. Gotham, $30 (480p) ISBN 978-1-592-40749-1

The revealing biography chronicles the life of the legendary jazz bandleader and composer, who conjured great music out of other men’s ideas. Wall Street Journal critic Teachout (Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong) presents a charismatic, charming, debonair man who brought a new artistic depth to a disreputable popular entertainment—and a self-centered bastard who suavely manipulated everyone from his sidemen to his countless paramours. (His infidelities provoked his wife to slash him with a razor and a mistress to pull a gun when she caught him in bed with another woman.) Teachout’s focus on his subject’s creative process sometimes clashes with his assertion that Ellington was “the greatest composer in the history of jazz”; the unevenness of the Duke’s oeuvre and his reliance on tunes appropriated from writing partner Billy Strayhorn and other band members without proper crediting raises the question of whether his “radically collaborative” methods really comport with our notion of a brilliant composer. Yet Ellington’s crucial role as a shaper and solidifier of his band’s improvisational musical outpourings comes through clearly in the book. Teachout neatly balances colorful anecdote with shrewd character assessments and musicological analysis, and he manages to debunk Ellington’s self-mythologizing, while preserving his stature as the man who caught jazz’s ephemeral genius in a bottle. Photos. Agent: Glen Hartley and Lynn Chu, Writers’ Representatives. (Oct. 21)