The King of All, Sir Duke
Peter Lavezzoli’s book The King of All, Sir Duke is a labor of love. The problem is that there is a lot of love here, but not much labor. Among the author’s several premises, there are two that stand out. One is unassailable: Duke Ellington was a highly influential genius. A second is specious: that Ellington’s influence extends to “a powerful lineage in pop music,” he says, including Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, George Clinton and Prince, “all of whom have permanently changed the course of modern music.” He states that they all “learned many important and specific lessons from Ellington on leadership, innovation and excellence,” yet doesn’t cite how and when they learned those many important lessons, and he doesn’t ask them directly. The best Lavezzoli can do in Prince’s case is quote Miles Davis saying, “For me, he could be the new Duke Ellington of our time if he just keeps at it.” That is Davis paying a compliment, not suggesting that Ellington influenced Prince.
Perhaps worst of all, the book seems slapped out overnight in the fashion of a sleep-deprived college sophomore. It fairly chokes with hyperbole and superlatives. Nothing that Ellington does passes by without Lavezzoli referring to it as “unique,” “a milestone” or “unmatched genius.” The sources he cites—mostly secondary—are fewer than most self-respecting sophomores would dare to include in a bibliography. In a list, he offers 11 books and one magazine article, which he at least once, in the case of a biography of Sun Ra, uses shamelessly.
In discussing the only meeting between Sun Ra (at the time known as Sonny Blount) and Ellington, Lavezzoli writes: “Sun Ra noticed the use of dissonance in Duke’s arrangements, but was impressed by the fact that it never actually sounded dissonant. The Young Ra was greatly inspired by the meeting.” And this is what John F. Szwed says in his masterful 1997 biography of Sun Ra, Space Is the Place : “[Blount] saw that Ellington also used dissonance in his writing, only it never seemed dissonant. Sonny was thrilled to see his own ideas confirmed.” Why not credit Szwed for this? Lavezzoli’s interviews with his primary sources of information, drummers Butch Ballard and Frank “Kash” Waddy, composer Gunther Schuller, Duke Ellington Jazz Society president Morris Hodara, Ellingtonia collector Jerry Valburn, and composer/arranger Luther Henderson are the saving graces of this mercifully short mess of a book.
Interestingly, Henderson, who worked with Ellington, was close friends with his son, Mercer, and serves as Lavezzoli’s most authoritative source on Duke, contradicts one of Lavezzoli’s prime themes, which is that Ellington basically invented the idea of the “democratic” composer/leader collaborating and communicating with his musicians—something that Sly Stone and George Clinton also do. But Henderson says, “Ellington wasn’t the only one to do that. Basie and Lunceford did the same thing.” This kind of collaboration, Henderson suggests, “is pure folk tradition.” Yet Lavezzoli doesn’t seem to hear—or want to hear.