With this exhaustive, engaging study of the greatest jazz composer of his era, Wall Street Journal drama critic Teachout solidifies his place as one of America's great music biographers.
Many have cited jazz as America's only true indigenous art form, so it is at once surprising and disheartening that major publishers are seemingly hesitant to champion books that tackle the subject—especially considering that when an author is allowed the freedom to dive into the life and music of a jazz titan, the results are often brilliant, something that Teachout demonstrated with his justifiably revered Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (2010). After Armstrong, chronologically speaking, bandleader/composer/arranger/pianist Duke Ellington was jazz's next game changer. Aside from his undeniably astounding ear, Ellington, like Armstrong, was a personality, one of the rare jazzmen who was able to combine heady music with showbiz panache without diminishing his art. With his vibrant prose and ability to get into his protagonist's head and heart, Teachout captures this essence and charisma in a manner worthy of Ellington's complex yet listenable classic “The Queen's Suite.” One of Ellington's most notable nonmusical qualities was his loyalty, and the author gives some of his longtime sidemen and compatriots—e.g., composer Billy Strayhorn and saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves—their due. Finally, as was the case in Pops, Teachout's musical analysis is spot-on, at once complex and accessible. It will be appreciated equally by those who have 100 Ellington albums and those whose awareness of the Duke is limited to his best-known tunes like "Take The 'A' Train" and "Satin Doll." Hopefully, the brilliance of Teachout’s treatment will compel the industry to let authors take a crack at the lives of, say, Ornette Coleman, Count Basie and Charles Mingus.
Like most Ellington albums, Teachout's in-depth, well-researched, loving study of this American treasure is an instant classic.