The Duke Ellington Reader
by John Edward Hasse, Simon & Schuster, 479 pages
edited by Mark Tucker, Oxford University Press, 536 pages
Today Duke Ellington stands higher than ever as a towering figure of American music. Right now he is the subject of a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian (“Beyond Category,” at the Museum of the City of New York through March 20 and then in other cities through September 1996), a major new biography, and an excellent critical collection.
Beyond Category is an affectionate musical biography by the curator of the Smithsonian show. Hasse reconstructs the Duke’s growth from a teen-ager playing rags for seventy-five cents a night to one of the great American composers. Ellington still hasn’t received the biography he deserves, but this good artistic portrait begins to restore the damage done by James Lincoln Collier’s patronizing attempt.
The Duke Ellington Reader ably charts the debates and triumphs along the way and makes a fine history of jazz itself. “This colored band is plenty torrid,” went the first New York review of Ellington, in 1923. John Hammond’s 1935 essay “The Tragedy of Duke Ellington” bemoans the composer’s attempts at longer, more ambitious pieces. Later articles by the likes of Ralph Ellison, Whitney Balliett, and Stanley Crouch more than make up for such early pomposities.There are also terrific interviews; in one, the trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton says of his boss, “He’s a genius, all right, but Jesus how he eats!” The Ellington Reader reveals both the genius and the man.