REMINISCING IN TEMPO: A PORTRAIT OF DUKE ELLINGTON By Stuart Nicholson Northeastern University Press 538 pp., $29.95
In one respect, Duke Ellington is like Babe Ruth or Charles Lindbergh. There's hardly anyone who hasn't heard of him. As his classic tunes and arrangements flood the airwaves and dazzle us again during this centennial year of his birth, we know why.
In Stuart Nicholson's new book, "Reminiscing in Tempo: a Portrait of Duke Ellington," the British jazz journalist attributes to the Duke "some of the finest performed, most adventurously crafted and emotionally serious work in jazz and of twentieth-century music."
His was a long (almost 60 years) and singular career. "I was a professional musician when I was 16," Ellington once said. By 1918, he was advertising "The Duke's Serenaders, Colored Syncopators" in the Washington, D.C., phone book. In 1923, he left his home town for the clubs and theaters of New York.
From the "gut bucket" and "jungle music" of the early days to the razzle-dazzle of Harlem's Cotton Club shows to the Ziegfeld Follies, the Duke developed his band and his composing skills. He began to thrive. "Duke was the brains," said drummer and life-long friend Sonny Greer, "always prodding us to do better, showing kindness and understanding. He was always with his men."
The band made recordings and toured, at first on the Massachusetts dance circuit. Ellington's manager, Irving Mills, got the nightly Cotton Club shows hooked up to live network radio. It was now "Duke Ellington and His Famous Cotton Club Orchestra." The year was 1928. Hollywood films beckoned in the '30s, and the Ellington organization began to be known throughout the country. He played the London Palladium, then Paris, for the first time in 1933. Many of the Duke's compositions became hits and standards, and his rise to celebrity continued into the war years.
The early '50s brought hard times to the big bands. Television undercut live entertainment. To keep going, Ellington accepted bookings in the segregated South, which made him unpopular with civil rights supporters, and his career flagged.
But then came the third annual Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. Ellington and his men played 27 choruses of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue." Count Basie's drummer, Jo Jones, had a "rolled up Christian Science Monitor and kept swatting the stage ... beating out the rhythm and yelling out encouraging words." The band "started to play to Jo as much as anybody else.... People began to dance in the aisles.... It was excruciating." When it was over, "pandemonium broke out."
"Ellington's appearance," writes Nicholson, brought him "one of the biggest ovations ever earned by any artist in the festival's history." The fabled career never faltered again.
After Ellington's death in 1974, Nicholson watched his fame recede into legend until the man became a "remote icon," accessible only by "tenured academics." He sensed "an overwhelming need to re-engage with Ellington as a man."
Painstakingly, Nicholson rummaged through collections and archival holdings for first-person interviews with the Duke, his friends and family, band members, business managers and associates, and a colorful assortment of other witnesses and participants. He found reviews of performances and recordings, as well as posters and other publicity materials - even the FBI file on Ellington.
From those sources, Nicholson has compiled not an "orthodox" biography, but a 400-page "oral history." These recollections, many of which are published for the first time, re-create something of the real ambiance of Ellington's world.
The Duke, says Nicholson, was "a larger than life personality with all the quirks and foibles that so often accompany genius." His affectionate but honest portrait doesn't shy away from Ellington's earthy sensuality, his superstition, drinking, gambling, and use of crude language.
Nicholson's approach has its merits and its limitations. For that reason, "Reminiscing in Tempo" is some distance from being the definitive Ellington biography. Still, it is immensely interesting on its own terms. Also, it gathers extensive bibliographical information and Ellington's staggering discography into a single volume. And thanks to Nicholson's sensitive editing, it preserves all of its speakers' dignity and humanity. There is no meanness or smallness anywhere in this portrait.
*Linda L. Giedl is a freelance writer living in Boston.