Duke Ellington's America
Few American artists in any medium have enjoyed the international and lasting cultural impact of Duke Ellington. From jazz standards such as “Mood Indigo” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” to his longer, more orchestral suites, to his leadership of the stellar big band he toured and performed with for decades after most big bands folded, Ellington represented a singular, pathbreaking force in music over the course of a half-century. At the same time, as one of the most prominent black public figures in history, Ellington demonstrated leadership on questions of civil rights, equality, and America’s role in the world.
With Duke Ellington’s America, Harvey G. Cohen paints a vivid picture of Ellington’s life and times, taking him from his youth in the black middle class enclave of Washington, D.C., to the heights of worldwide acclaim. Mining extensive archives, many never before available, plus new interviews with Ellington’s friends, family, band members, and business associates, Cohen illuminates his constantly evolving approach to composition, performance, and the music business—as well as issues of race, equality and religion. Ellington’s own voice, meanwhile, animates the book throughout, giving Duke Ellington’s America an intimacy and immediacy unmatched by any previous account.
By far the most thorough and nuanced portrait yet of this towering figure, Duke Ellington’s America highlights Ellington’s importance as a figure in American history as well as in American music.
“Harvey Cohen is the first scholar to make extensive use of the Ellington papers in the Smithsonian Institution, and Duke Ellington's America is the most detailed and probing examination of Ellington’s later career. It offers sensitive coverage of all of Ellington’s albums and major compositions, particularly after 1960, while virtually every other book on Ellington skirts over or neglects certain productions. Unlike almost all his predecessors, Cohen has produced a book that does justice to the complexity and importance of Duke Ellington’s life.”
“Cohen adds to the dozens of books about jazz great Duke Ellington with a new approach.. . . Cohen delivers a social history that firmly places the bandleader within his time. The author first describes the racial mores of Washington, DC, at the turn of the last century that shaped the young Ellington and attributes Ellington’s success during the 1930s to the marketing campaign of manager Irving Mills, who branded him as a suave, elegant genius who could appeal to black and white audiences. Cohen covers Ellington’s postwar challenges, his return to fame, his State Department tours, the ‘sacred concerts,’ and his death in May 1974. Along the way, he focuses on changes in the record industry and music technology and the progress in civil rights. . . . Cohen offers a fascinating, exhaustively researched social history of Duke Ellington’s world. Highly recommended for general readers and jazz aficionados alike.”
“Taking full advantage of [the Smithsonian Institution's] Ellington Archive, Harvey G. Cohen’s new book illuminates Ellington’s career as never before, and also helps to deepen our understanding of larger trends and issues in American politics and culture. No previous book on Ellington has followed the money so rigorously, laying bare the interworkings of art and capital. Neither biography nor musical analysis, Duke Ellington’s America is a social history of Ellington’s career, a double portrait of musician and society that situates the music within three large issues: the struggle for African American civil rights, the growth of the popular music industry, and the emergence of the United States as a global power whose most effective cultural weapon was African American music. If Cohen has an overarching thesis, it may be that Ellington’s personality and talents uniquely thrived in all three of these areas, despite the constant threats of appropriation, exploitation and even physical violence that hobbled or curtailed the careers of many of his contemporaries. Although Cohen’s historical approach is not theory-driven, he skillfully lays out the cultural contradictions of Ellington’s America in the ongoing clash between the tenacious structures of racism and the rapidly evolving music business, a paper empire erected on parallel pillars of copyright and organized crime. . . . Many older books about Ellington portrayed his later career as a decline and fall from the glories of the Ben Webster/Jimmie Blanton band of 1940 and 1941, and missed the story, which Cohen tells very well, of a rejuvenated creativity equal to Stravinsky’s or Picasso’s.”
“The idea of a substantial book about a major musical figure that pays relatively little attention to his music might seem counterintuitive — or, to put it less politely, pointless. That ‘Duke Ellington’s America’ succeeds as well as it does is a tribute both to its author and to its subject."--New York Times
“Harvey G. Cohen’s extensive research and creative scholarship has helped to bring us much closer to an understanding and appreciation of Ellington’s life, his thinking, his passion and his overall mission. The book also reveals how Ellington was able to deal with a multitude of problems through the years and still remain productive…This fine book is a welcome addition to the ongoing study of Ellington, the man and musician. Highly recommended.”--Kenny Burrell
“The book makes nuanced sense of the hard choices at every turn, in years when it often fell to Ellington to pioneer new audiences and new venues, and to insist on a level of dignity rarely accorded to African-American artists.”--Geoffrey O'Brien, New York Review of Books