Duke Ellington’s America: musical genius and then some…


Harvey Cohen’s jam-packed Duke Ellington’s America makes it a great long season of jazz biographies — after Robin Kelley’s Thelonious Monk and Terry Teachout’s Pops.

Harvey Cohen is a cultural historian who’s been to the bottom of the Smithsonian’s oceanic archive on Ellington. He has written the story of all the things it took, besides musical genius, to make Duke Ellington forever the presiding figure in the jazz century. This is, in effect, the man without the music, though in our conversation we’re restoring the sound-track to an inescapably musical life.

In Harvey Cohen’s telling, Duke is a somewhat aloof, personally mysterious but supremely ambitious and confident artist; a race man and identity builder with a very subtle sense of who “my people,” as he said, really were. He comes through as a strategic businessman who learned from the people who used him, and liberated himself. He became a successful, almost indestructible commercial property whose artistic soul survived show business, as very few do.

Who was Duke Ellington, really, without the music? I say he was the Ralph Waldo Emerson of the 20th Century — the affirming genius of a specially American democratic energy. Emerson, like Ellington, was both blues man and enthusiast, a definer of public style and inner ecstasies. Ellington, like Emerson, was a lonely, compulsive composer better known as an itinerant performance artist. It intrigues me that Ellington and Emerson were both towering individualists, each set in his own band of eccentric voices: Ellington in his orchestra, Emerson in the Concord circle.  Both would be remembered as enablers if they had created nothing themselves. It is fun to think of Johnny Hodges, the alto saxophone star, as Ellington’s Hawthorne, or of co-composer Billy Strayhorn as Duke’s Walt Whitman. Or of Herman Melville as Emerson’s version of Ben Webster or Charles Mingus.

Albert Murray, in Stomping the Blues and elsewhere, helped me feel the giant scale of Ellington’s achievement, up there with the Henry James class of American immortals. “Those who regard Ellington as the most representative American composer have good reason,” Murray writes. “Not unlike Emerson, Melville, Whitman, Twain, Hemingway and Faulkner in literature, he quite obviously has converted more of the actual texture and vitality of American life into first rate, universally appealing music than anybody else.” Harvey Cohen extends and develops the theme:

Before World War II, here in the United States, if you were teaching at a college, as I do, it was dangerous to your career to teach courses about American art, American music, American literature — because it was not held up as anything respectable. Everybody knew at that time that European culture was the kind of culture that everybody should aspire to, and that American culture, especially African-American culture, was second-rate or worse.

What I argue in the book is that Ellington was a primary influence in getting Americans to accept their own art as something serious and lasting. He did it by broadcasting his music on the radio from the Cotton Club in the late 1920’s, which really changed the definition of African-American music. His extended pieces really expanded what Americans expected from African-Americans.

Also when Ellington went on tour for the first time after the Cotton Club, he toured on a theater circuit. People were listening to the Ellington Orchestra while sitting down, as in a theater or at a classical concert. To us today this is not so striking. But back in the day, in the context of the 1930s, it was huge.

Even more importantly, in 1933, Ellington and the band make a European tour for the first time… And there were all kinds of reviewers in the UK looking at these shows and comparing Ellington to people like Stravinsky and Beethoven.

Ellington makes American music into something more respectable long before the artists who usually get the credit for this achievement. Aaron Copland’s major pieces like Appalachian Spring got known about the time of World War II. The same thing with Charles Ives. Here was Ellington, about a decade before, already making these inroads, already changing the American conception of what serious music and art was in the United States.

Harvey G. Cohen in conversation with Chris Lydon, June 21, 2010.
Elma Lewis, longtime arts entrepreneur in Roxbury, MA, with her friend Duke Ellington, circle 1970

Elma Lewis, longtime arts entrepreneur in Roxbury, MA, with her friend Duke Ellington, circa 1970

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  • It’s very nice.Thank you for sharing

  • It’s worth adding that the top white bandleaders of the swing era, such as Artie Shaw and Charlie Barnett, revered Ellington at the time they were competing with him. So Ellington’s greatness was not just something constructed after the fact by historians. Ellington managed to stay both excellent and cutting-edge for decades.

    Thanks for the topic.

  • nother

    A couple of years ago I worked my way through “The Duke Ellington Reader” and I found myself with a better understanding of Duke the artist, but Duke the man not as much…until that is, I reached the last page – “Eulogy for Swee’ Pea” (1967)

    All I need to know about Mr. Ellington the human is reveled to me in this brief tribute to the man whom he once invited to his home at 381 Edgecombe Ave. with the simple instruction, “Take the ‘A’ train.”

    Duke writes:

    “Because he had a rare sensitivity and applied himself to his gifts, Billy Strayhorn successfully married melody, words, harmony, equating the fitting with happiness. His greatest virtue, I think was his honesty, not only to others but to himself. His listening-hearing self was totally intolerant of his writing-playing self when or if any compromise was expected, or considered expedient.

    Later Duke writes:

    He demanded freedom of expression and lived in what we consider the most important and moral of freedoms: Freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from self-pity (even throughout all the pain in and bad news); freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might help another more than it might help himself; and freedom from the kind of pride that could make a man feel he was better than his brother or neighbor.

  • Christine Poff

    Did you know Duke Ellington was a friend of Elma Lewis and opened the Playhouse in the Park season in Franklin Park every 4th of July starting in 1966 until his death? I think he played for free to park community members.

    I tried to post a photo of them together on the Playhouse stage, but wasn’t able to.

  • chris

    Yes, Christine, and there’s a record of it, too: Here’s Elma Lewis, the late long-time champion of the arts in Roxbury, with her friend Duke Ellington, circa 1970. Thanks for remembering.
    Elma Lewis, longtime arts entrepreneur in Roxbury, MA, with her friend Duke Ellington, circle 1970