THE manipulative charm and organizational skill of Edward Kennedy ``Duke'' Ellington made him a highly successful band leader for 50 years. His astonishing productivity - some 2,000 works - made him the most significant jazz composer of his age. ``Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington'' provides an admiring (though not uncritical) assessment of Ellington's contributions. It draws on the Ellington archives at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where author John Edward Hasse is curator in the Division of Musical History.
Ellington created an orchestra ``that sounded unlike any other,'' Hasse writes. He ``created his own category. He was in a class beyond ... the other big-band leaders of the 1930s and 1940s, few of whom were composers and orchestrators of much import, and none of whom had his originality.''
His peers, dubbing him ``Duke,'' acknowledged the magnetic charisma of the natural aristocrat. By 1918, he was pianist in a dance band; by 1923 The Washingtonians were playing in a Times Square nightclub; by 1924 Ellington was their leader.
When trumpeter James ``Bubber'' Miley joined in 1923, his pungent growls transformed a fairly ordinary dance band into a fiercely hot jazz combo. Ellington responded immediately to this new, personal ``voice.'' Miley was the first tone color in Ellington's musical palette.
In 1926, Irving Mills became the band's manager. He was an ex-song plugger and music publisher who added his name to everything Duke wrote. In 1927, Ellington opened the Cotton Club in New York City. He remained there until 1931. His band's exotic sound complemented the club's ``jungle'' atmosphere and its heavy radio coverage led to national fame.
The band was required to provide music for production numbers, back up singers, and come up with everything from mood pieces to hot ``stomps'' for the chorus line. It was a crash course in orchestration. The band was the workshop where Ellington and his sidemen, whose musical ideas he routinely incorporated, worked out unorthodox voicings.
For the next 40 years he and his band were on the road: nightclubs and dance halls; Europe in 1933 and 1939, again in the '50s and '60s, plus trips to other continents; and Carnegie Hall in 1943 and later.
Royalties from Ellington's hit songs supported the band when bookings were thin. After creating a sensation at Newport, R.I. in 1956, the festivals, sacred concerts, TV appearances, and recording dates were nonstop. Nothing was ever finished: Ellington revised continuously, and his work grew deeper and more subtle.
From 1939 to 1967, Ellington collaborated with composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn (whose tune ``Take the `A' Train'' became the band's theme). He contributed to everything Ellington wrote - orchestral suites, stage musicals, a ballet, an opera, and film scores. Their styles were so similar that musicologists cannot agree who wrote what.
Today, Ellington's work is slowly finding its way into the conservatory canon. But only the original recordings capture the composer's unprecedented blend of distinctive instrumental ``voices.''