Duke Ellington’s Artistry and Artifice: How the Jazz Icon Engineered His Own Image
“Ellington [was] a combination of Sir Galahad, Scrooge, Don Quixote, and God knows what other saints and sinners that were apt to pop out of his ever-changing personality.”
By Maria Popova
Much like Freud engineered his own myth and Salinger crafted his personal legend, jazz icon Duke Ellington — whose funeral was witnessed by 10,000 people in the pews at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, another 2,500 listening outside via loudspeakers, and thousands more tuned into the live radio broadcast, even prompting President Nixon to take a timeout from Watergate and praise “America’s foremost composer” — sculpted his public image with meticulous, obsessive, almost paranoid precision. In Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (public library), writer, playwright, librettist, and Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout sets out to lift the veneer of Ellington’s polished public persona and uncover the mysterious complexity of Duke’s private person. Though Teachout — who also penned Pops, the excellent 2009 biography of Louis Armstrong — calls his biography “not so much a work of scholarship as an act of synthesis” for its collaging of existing research, interviews, and materials, don’t let his humility deceive you: This is a masterwork of dimensional insight into an icon who sought to flatten and flatter himself as much as possible and to shroud his exceptional artistry in exceptional artifice, a man woven of paradoxes, who, consumed by his chronic failings of private self-control, exerted his every faculty on controlling his public image. And yet, somehow, Teachout manages to peel away these protective layers and expose the flawed human being beneath them by elevating rather than diminishing Ellington’s humanity, enriching rather than discrediting his legacy.
Even though he surrounded himself with a formidable entourage of deft PR custodians, he was ultimately his own best publicist — a man who employed the same charisma that made him an incredible entertainer in making his off-stage image as credible as possible, despite its assiduous artifice and methodical manipulation. Teachout writes:
That was Ellington’s way. He talked not to explain himself but to conceal himself. Even Ruth, his adoring younger sister, said that he “definitely wasn’t direct. He wasn’t direct with anybody about anything.” Yet he talked so fluently and impressively that nearly everyone believed him, save for those who had reason to know better.
His publicists — who dubbed him “Harlem’s Aristocrat of Jazz” — took great care to echo and amplify the image Duke himself was projecting, pitching him not only as a mere jazzman but as a true artist bearing the seal of approval of the era’s glitterati. They issued actual publicity manuals that were sent out to the managers of theaters and ballrooms where Ellington performed. One read:
Sell Ellington as a great artist, a musical genius whose unique style and individual theories of harmony have created a new music. . . . Ellington’s genius as a composer, arranger and musician has won him the respect and admiration of such authorities as Percy Grainger, head of the department of music at the New York University; Basil Cameron, conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Leopold Stokowski, famed conductor of the celebrated Philadelphia Orchestra; Paul Whiteman, whose name is synonymous with jazz, and many others.
Ellington was especially attached to the idea of serving as a spokesperson for African Americans — an aspiration admirable enough on the surface, but only if unbridled from ego and self-inflation, something of which Ellington was far from innocent given the amount of personal publicity he poured into his objective. To support this goal of his, another publicity pamphlet emphasized his presentability in addition to his talent:
He is as genial as he is intelligent, always creates a good impression upon newspaper people with whom he comes in contact and invariably supplies them with good copy for their stories.
Ellington’s lifelong desire to “act on behalf of the race,” as he himself put it, was an expression of his own life’s contradictions — the son of a butler and the grandson of a slave, he carried himself with an air of regality; a high school dropout, he made a special effort to teach himself the etiquette and manners of high society. Teachout notes the effect of this deliberate application:
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.
And yet beneath the persona Ellington projected lay a person of swelling imperfection — he shamelessly “borrowed” creative material from his band musicians without sharing the royalties or accolades, and had ceaseless extramarital and extra-extramarital affairs, cheating on his wife Edna with his longterm lover Evie, on whom he cheated with countless other women. (So intense were the private passions around his publicly muzzled affairs that, at one point, Edna attacked him with a razor after finding out he had been sleeping with another woman, reportedly his Black and Tan co-star Fredi Washington. What Edna didn’t know was that Duke had a regular habit of checking into several hotels, handing out keys to different women, only later deciding which hotel room he wanted to ravage for the night.) Teachout puts it rather bluntly, but certainly not an unwarranted observation given the evidence of Ellington’s life:
Underneath his soigné exterior, Ellington was a self-centered hedonist who lived a nomadic existence in which everything was subordinated to his art — and, insofar as possible, his pleasure.
Teachout cites the recollection of producer John Houseman, who worked with Ellington on his first Broadway show, Beggar’s Holiday:
At the time I worked with him the Duke had abandoned all attempts to organize his own life. Between late-night engagements with his band, concerts, recordings, interviews, composing and other activities he had turned over the scheduling of his days and nights to his wife, his manager and other associates. They woke him up when it was time, fed him, laid out the right clothes for him, transported and delivered him on time for whatever engagement he was committed to, picked him up, changed his clothes, delivered him once more, fed him again and finally put him to bed. In this way, he explained, by ceasing to concern himself with time and space, he was able to preserve his energy and his sanity.
And yet, Teachout argues, Houseman mistook Ellington’s meticulous manipulation of his people-machinery for mere passivity — instead, he was hard at work controlling every aspect of his life:
What Houseman did not see was that Ellington sought to exert the maximum possible amount of control over everyone in his life — by stealth. “What you need to do is wake up after two o’clock, make phone calls, but don’t move an inch,” he told [his son] Mercer Ellington. “Just lie flat on your back and phone, and tell everybody everything that has to be done, and lay all your plans without going out anywhere. . . . When you come downstairs you’ll have prepared your day, and you’ll be The Greatest!” After he died, Mercer found a handwritten note among his father’s papers in which Ellington summed himself up in three lapidary sentences: “No problem. I’m easy to please. I just want to have everybody in the palm of my hand.”
His selfishness was unswerving, though it did not exclude benevolence, if only on his own terms.
Teachout, however, takes great care not to dim the enormity of Ellington’s talent in light of his immutable imperfection, noting instead that he used the former as a vehicle for both exorcising and tucking away the latter:
He was, like Chopin, Paul Klee, Jorge Luis Borges, and Flannery O’Connor, a disciplined lyric miniaturist who knew how to express the grandest of emotions on the smallest of scales, and who needed no more room in which to suggest his immortal longings.
Arguably the most accurate, succinctly eloquent description of Ellington’s elusive personhood comes from Rex Stewart, cornetist of the Duke Ellington Orchestra:
Ellington is the most complex and paradoxical individual that I’ve ever known . . . a combination of Sir Galahad, Scrooge, Don Quixote, and God knows what other saints and sinners that were apt to pop out of his ever-changing personality.
Indeed, Ellington was a bundle of inner contradictions — the kind we all grapple with by virtue of being human, only his were far more numerous, more entangled, and more full of friction than average. Teachout writes:
He was at once deeply (if superstitiously) religious and a tireless philanderer who, in the words of an admiring friend, had the sexual appetite of “a romping, stomping alley cat.” He pretended to be a devoted family man for the benefit of the ever-vigilant press, he deserted Edna, his first and only wife, later settling into a long-term relationship with a Cotton Club showgirl whom he chose not to marry (he never divorced Edna) and on whom he cheated as often as he liked.
In fact, one of Ellington’s most pressing publicity concerns was keeping his affairs out of the papers — information he felt would greatly compromise the very presentability and wholesomeness he worked so hard to craft in order to feel like he belonged in high society. As Teachout observes, he went to great lengths to make sure “his fans saw only what he wished them to see, and nothing more.” At one point, he even went as far as paying off gossip columnists and placing expensive ads in newspapers to prevent his relationship with Evie from being reported.
In addition to crafting his public personality, he was equally meticulous about his appearance. Always clad in the latest fashion, he straightened his hair and even wore a corset. His sleek “conk” hair style, however, was particularly paradoxical and a visceral testament to both his cultural obliviousness to anything other than himself and his choice of personal vanity over the civil rights cause he alleged to stand for:
Ellington wore his hair in a “conk,” a style created with a hair-straightening process that made use of hot lye. Straight hair, or “good hair,” was as highly valued by middle-class blacks of his generation as was light skin, and they were willing to endure much for it. Black newspapers were full of ads for products that promised to rid the user of “kinky woolly hair. . . . All hipsters in Harlem are using superior hair straightener.” No amount of shame was too much to bear in the quest for good hair. Every jar of Kongolene, one of the most popular hair-processing products of the day, was decorated with a logo on which the initials KKK were, fantastic as it may sound, clearly visible. Most of the top black bandleaders of the period, including Ellington and Cab Calloway, wore conks (Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton were prominent exceptions) long after the style had been repudiated by a new generation of politically conscious musicians. “We were against kinky hair in those days,” recalled the jazz trumpeter Joe Wilder. “We didn’t have better sense. . . . You know there was no pride in nappy hair in those days. We all wanted straight hair—we wanted people to think we had good hair.”
In time Malcolm X came to see the conk he had worn in his youth as an unnatural act of “self-degradation.” He wrote contemptuously of the practice in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, taking care not to mention Ellington (whom he admired) by name: “You’ll see the conk worn by many, many so-called ‘upper class’ Negroes, and, as much as I hate to say it about them, on all too many Negro entertainers. . . . I don’t see how on earth a black woman with any race pride could walk down the street with any black man wearing a conk—the emblem of his shame that he is black.” But Ellington would never stop straightening his hair, oblivious of the impression that it made on younger blacks for whom “good hair” was a badge of dishonor.
In another manifestation — perhaps the manifestation — of his paradoxical desire for wide public visibility and tightly controlled private invisibility, Ellington even wrote an autobiography, aptly titled Music Is My Mistress and released a year before his death. (How much of his decision was creative and how much commercial will remain a mystery, but Doubleday did pay him a $50,000 advance for it, equivalent to about $319,000 today.) But rather than using it as a final saving grace of honesty, Ellington used it to further conceal rather than reveal the truth of who he really was — perhaps, in a less cynical view, simply because it was a truth that eluded him more than anyone. Teachout finds the book’s intentional evasiveness especially frustrating:
He of all people should have left behind a frank memoir, one in which he told the story of how a somewhat better-than-average stride pianist largely devoid of formal musical training managed to turn himself into a great composer — for that is what he was, and why he matters to us today.
And yet Teachout finds “at least one undeniable truth” revealed in the self-interview with which Ellington, this “improbably gaudy bird of paradise,” ends his autobiography:
Q. Can you keep from writing music? Do you write in spite of yourself?
A. I don’t know how strong the chains, cells, and bars are. I’ve never tried to escape.
But if an answer to Ellington’s elusive character is ever to be found, perhaps it offers itself up in the verse with which he closed Black, Brown and Beige, his multimovement piece about the black experience in America, which he spent a decade crafting — and more than a decade pitching for publicity, long before the piece was finished, or even started. The proclamation was intended as commentary on the question of race relations addressed by this particular piece and his general public persona, but it endures as one that ultimately reveals the agony of the private person who remained unseen, even by himself, beneath the public veneer of charisma and bravado:
And so, your song has stirred the souls
Of men in strange and distant places
The picture drawn by many hands
For many eyes of many races.
But did it ever speak to them
Of what you really are?
Still, it’s hard to judge Ellington’s tangle of paradoxes too harshly given it was merely a magnified — however exponentially — version of our shared humanity. As a 1944 New Yorker profile of him put it, he was a man who had “a stage self and a real self.” This is the thing: We all do — with those who live in the spotlight, the public persona and the private person are just much more easily delineated and discernible, the contrast between them thus starker. But all of us, especially today, are equally our own publicists as we craft our public personae with every Facebook status shared and every Instagram photo uploaded, using those increasingly as tools to conceal as much as to reveal. Fittingly, Rex Stewart remarked of Ellington that he had “apparently learned to give more of himself in public but less in private” — a tendency to which it’s all too easy to succumb as we too explore and manipulate our own boundaries of visibility and invisibility.
Dimensional, thoughtful, and rigorously researched, Duke is an enthralling read from cover to cover, revealing through the specificity of one conflicted life the universality of the human condition and our constant struggle for integration, for wholeness, for reining in our angels and our demons into a unity of self, both public and private.
Published October 21, 2013