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Essential Ellington–An Excerpt from a New Biography

Terry Teachout's no-holds-barred look at an unknowable genius

Duke Ellington at NYC's Paramount Theatre in 1946

A revelation of a jazz biography, arts critic Terry Teachout’s Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham Books) succeeds in humanizing, with brutal honesty but also great respect, an American cultural deity. Teachout, author of 2009’s Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, pulls from a deep well of preexisting sources to shed light on the desires and motivations, both personal and artistic, of jazz’s peerless composer and bandleader. This excerpt, taken from the book’s prologue, is a representative sample of Teachout’s no-holds-barred look at the life and work of an unknowable genius.

Though he carried himself like a prince of the realm, he was the son of a butler and the grandson of a slave. Washington, D.C., where Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in 1899, was one of America’s most segregated cities, but it also had a black middle class that was proud and self-aware. Ellington’s parents belonged to it, and their only son, a high school dropout whose regal demeanor belied his poor grades and seeming lack of interest in music, went out of his way to acquire its manners. For all his polish, it was his artistry, not his personality, that was the source of his enduring appeal. But it was the personality that made white people who might not otherwise have done so give him a second glance, and in time it opened doors of opportunity through which few other blacks had been allowed to pass.

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