In His Own Words

Duke Ellington in his own words from Duke Ellington’s America by Harvey Cohen 2010 University of Chicago Press

  • “Sometimes they’d tell me to write for current modes and not for myself. I’d get the feeling that maybe I ought to listen to them and then I sit down and talk with Billy [Strayhorn]. He’d convince me all over again that I ought to write what I felt. That’s what I’ve done.” [1948]
  • “I know the only thing I do in music is listen, not the only thing maybe, but the big thing I do in music is listen. Before you can play anything, or before you can write it, you gotta hear it. If you can’t hear it, then it’s a mechanical thing. It has to do with the ear. Some of the prettiest things on paper come off drab.” [Early 1960s]
  • “I’m a hotel man; I like being alone, you know. I don’t know why.” [1956]
  • “I wanted to get back to Europe for a while. It’s good for the morale. It gives you the kind of adjustment of mind you need in this business. Over there [in America] you get too used to the Hit Parade. You know it means nothing, and yet after a while, you start paying attention. That’s bad for your music.” [1948, in Europe]

This book is filled with information that gives us context for a richer understanding of Ellington’s life and musical achievements. Here’s a straightforward review.

A couple of high points for me:

  • It’s helpful to know about the 1919 Washington DC Race Riot, “a flashpoint in American racial dynamics.” This event preceded a period when Ellington and his hometown colleagues began visiting and eventually settling in New York City. That violence, and the racial politics and activism all around it HAD to have been a major part of the conversation as these young African Americans pondered their future and their music. Years later, when asked about why he left a comfortable career in DC (providing commercial music for social events), Ellington’s elegant and inscrutable statement was simply, “It’s always more important to know what’s happening than it is to make a living.” Is the riot and its aftermath in the background behind those words? Ellington always leaves you thinking….
  • Harvey Cohen quotes extensively from unpublished essays in which Duke describes his vivid vision for an extended musical work that would be a tone parallel to the African American experience. That work eventually came together as “Black Brown and Beige,” first performed in 1943, and Duke generally avoided public descriptions of it or any of his other major works. The writings that Cohen has unearthed are intense and moving; as you read you can imagine the words in Duke’s voice, telling you what he wants to get across to listeners.

Cohen also gives us painful details about business hassles that repeatedly dragged down Ellington, even as he was creating masterpieces after masterpiece.

Over and over again the best parts of the book are Ellington’s own words – from correspondence, articles, and interviews. The simple statements at the top of this post appealed to me; If you read this book, you’re sure to find messages from Duke that are meant for you.

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