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Duke Ellington: A Spiritual Biography


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Janna Tull Steed
Crossroad Publishing, 1999
Hardcover, 192 pages
ISBN: 0-8245-2351-2

Why another Ellington biography? The sub-title, A Spiritual Biography, is critical. While Steed does an excellent job of re-telling the standard Ellington story, her special province is the spiritual aspects of Ellington's life, particularly his work from 1965-73 on three Sacred Concerts. Not only is Steed a writer, singer and radio producer, she is an ordained minister who worked for ten years as a pastor.

In a documentary on Ellington for public television's American Masters series, singer Herb Jeffries referred to Duke as "a godly man". This description may be hard to swallow given what we know about the man as a dandy, a womanizer, a manipulator (see David Hajdu's biography of Billy Strayhorn, Lush Life). While acknowledging all that, Steed makes a good case for viewing Ellington in a more multi-dimensional way. In fact, he was a life-long devotee of the Bible who reminded us that "every man prays in his own language". Steed contends that "His great passion and work sprang from an awareness of the presence of God in all of life".

In his work on the sacred concerts, Ellington saw himself as a messenger of God. He considered them his most important work, his most significant statement. The processes by which Ellington was invited to create his sacred works and the ways he composed and staged them are fascinating. My only criticism of Steed's book is that while she presents the significant changes in church bodies as context, I believe she could have done a better job of acknowleding others from the music world who became involved in those developments (e.g. former Ellington arranger Mary Lou Williams, who composed hymns and masses in the same period).

(Steed's book includes a 4 page chronology, 2 page Select Discography by the Smithsonian's John Edward Hasse, 37 photos and illustrations).

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