Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington

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The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington by John Edward Hasse
Da Capo Press, 1995
ISBN 0306806142

Where do you start with Duke Ellington?

When Duke launched his career, his contemporaries included James P. Johnson, Fletcher Henderson and a fresh-on-the-scene Louis Armstrong. When he wrapped things up in 1974, the rock / jazz flirtations of Weather Report and Return Forever were all the rage. That's a huge chunk of musical history, and each and every year of it was touched by his influence.

Ellington is the music's greatest composer, and perhaps — as this book suggests — the greatest American composer of any category, period. He wrote thousands of songs: funky jungle stomps; perfect pop songs; sophisticatedly-swinging big band charts; sacred songs; suites, and jazz symphonies.

So, where do you start? To the jazz initiate, or for a fan who started somewhere else and has worked his or her way to Duke, approaching his legacy is daunting. Which records, hell, which decade, do you choose first? For the curious, the intimidated, "Beyond Category" is the perfect primer.

Choosing an Ellington book can be just as tough as choosing one of his records. There are loads of them, including Duke's own "Music is My Mistress." But this one is the best entry point. There's no legend-smashing on Hasse's agenda, no dirt to dish. Nor does he have some stupid theory to advance (such as "Duke was only a so-so piano player" or "Strayhorn was the real guy," or whatever). He merely wants to record the history, and offer some perspective. By and large, this is a just-the-facts overview.

The golden age in Harlem, the glory days of the Blanton-Webster band, the financial struggles of the early 1950s, the triumph at Newport in '55, are all recounted and placed into historical perspective, as are the final years of Ellington's long career.

Hasse, curator of jazz music at the Smithsonian, isn't the liveliest writer, but his prose is clear and highly educational. Much of the book's color comes from Hasse's excellent choice of quotes, which come from Ellington family members, band members and friends.

Another nice touch is a summary at the end of each chapter, which review the most significant albums and songs of the period just discussed. These serve as an excellent listening guide, since most of the albums and compilations mentioned are still in print and obtainable.

My only qualm is Hasse's continual insistence on trying to distinguish between Ellington the bandleader and Ellington the composer. This is a favorite critic's game: Did the economic necessity of touring in order to hold his large group together prevent Ellington from reaching his full potential as a composer? Apparently this is one of life's big "what ifs?" if you are jazz historian. To me, it's a big "so what?". Ellington wouldn't have been Ellington without his orchestra. Phenomenal players like Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Ben Webster, and, oh, there's so many to mention, served as the paint on Ellington's palette. Duke wrote plenty enough classic compositions for my tastes, more than any other composer that springs to mind.

The reason Ellington wasn't placed alongside the likes of Copland, Stravinsky, or even Gershwin during his lifetime has more to do with America's narrow-minded attitude about race than it does with how much time he spent on the road, or why he continued to play dance dates when it was so obvious he was a "great composer." By all accounts, Duke liked playing dance dates. To give him credit, Hasse mentions these cultural factors, but he worries too much about what Duke might have done instead of all he in fact did.

Ellington, as Hasse points out, never won the Pulitzer Prize he so richly deserved. But Wynton Marsalis (who, incidentally, wrote the introduction to "Beyond Category") just did. It never would have happened without Duke, who worked so long, and so hard, to ensure this music would receive the recognition and respect it deserves. Maybe America is finally coming around.

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