Duke Ellington’s America

book cover

Chapter by Chapter Summary

  1. 1. Washington/New York

    A multi-faceted rendering of Ellington’s early home life and musical antecedents and how they inspired and guided him. The unique African American community of Washington D.C., comparatively probably the best place for a black American to live in the United States at the turn of the century when Ellington was born, informed Ellington’s lifelong perspectives on race. This chapter also discusses how Ellington and Harlem Renaissance authors and intellectuals shared many goals in common, even if the Renaissance figures tended to discount the jazz music that Ellington wrote during this period.

  2. 2. The Marketing Plan

    Features the most balanced and complete view of Ellington’s manager and publisher, the second generation Jewish immigrant Irving Mills, who discovered Ellington, and put into motion a marketing plan that portrayed Ellington as a “genius” who represented values of respectability and quality. This represented a jarring counter to the usual way in which African Americans were promoted in the mass media. Together, Ellington and Mills expanded the parameters of the time for what black music could encompass, and set Ellington up for a long-term career with the freedom to present audiences with challenging music that frequently stepped outside of pop music’s usual boundaries. This chapter also demonstrates how in the decades before the civil rights era, Ellington was viewed as a race leader, because of his dignified image and manner onstage, in films and in ads, his artistic integrity, his songs celebrating black culture and history, and his numerous benefits on behalf of black causes and organisations.

  3. 3. Serious Listening

    This chapter documents how Ellington served as a key force in inspiring Americans and others around the world to see American music as something serious and lasting, at a time in American history when American art was not respected, especially in the US, and not taught at universities. This development is traced through Ellington’s pioneering tour of Britain in 1933, and the journalism it inspired on both sides of the Atlantic that treated popular music in a serious critical fashion; Ellington’s numerous film appearances of the 1930s, which featured him as a serious composer and eloquent spokesperson, a singular image for blacks in the stereotype-ridden mass media; and Ellington’s 1931 tour of the Publix theatre circuit in the United States which featured audiences sitting down and enjoying Ellington’s music as “serious listening,” proof that blacks could create works well beyond the danceable sexualized music that they were usually characterized by in the pop music environment of the period.

  4. 4. Credits/Exit Mills

    Using much new research, this chapter explores the controversial financial role Irving Mills played in Ellington’s career. Mills probably took at least 50% of the proceeds of Ellington’s career during their 1926-1939 partnership, which in today’s music business would be viewed as unethical and probably as grounds for a lawsuit. He added his name to Ellington’s song credits, even though he almost certainly added little or nothing to the compositions, yet Ellington did not seem to mind, seeing such activity as the price to be paid for enjoying a successful career and having his compositions heard around the world. The issue of whether Ellington did not apportion appropriate songwriting credit to his band members during this period is also considered.

  5. 5. Swingin’

    After leaving Mills in 1939, Ellington took full artistic and financial control of his career, creating his own publishing company (where Ellington didn’t have to share song credits with a manager), signing with a management company that took only 10% of the proceeds of his career, and eventually, starting up his own record label. Interestingly, the Swing Era, when jazz became America’s popular music of choice and ruled the airwaves, proved to be a difficult time for Ellington and his orchestra, as the best gigs and opportunities were generally reserved for white bands. This chapter documents how Ellington slowly chipped away at the segregation and discrimination of the music business during this period, and eventually enjoyed the most concentrated popularity of his life in the mid 1940s, aided by the sophisticated yet accessible compositions of young composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn. While most hit recordings of the Swing Era proved formulaic, Ellington and Strayhorn increasingly created works that fell outside the usual popular music experience, exhibiting a more adult sensibility that recognized both good and sad times, instead of the usual sugar-coated imagery of love featured on the Hit Parade.

  6. 6. Black, Brown and Beige

    For his premiere performance at Carnegie Hall in 1943, Ellington created his longest extended work, the 45 minute “Black, Brown and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the History of the Negro in America”—a composition in three movements meant to illustrate the history of black Americans, from their abduction from Africa to their role in World War II. The event drew the most extensive media coverage Ellington had enjoyed up to that point, with Ellington extolling black history in numerous interviews, a rare occurrence in American life at the time. What the audience did not hear was Ellington’s impassioned explanation of what this music was all about. They were unaware that Ellington had written a 40 page scenario in prose and poetry explaining the history his music represented. Because initial critical reception of “Black, Brown and Beige” was mostly negative (and misguided), particularly in New York City, Ellington never publicly released this scenario. This chapter extensively analyzes this document, which allows for an unprecedented and uniquely personal view into Ellington’s interpretations of American history and his role within it.

  7. 7. Postwar Struggles

    In this period, Ellington faced increased competition from R&B, bebop music and pop vocalists, an exodus of several key band members, and a declining music industry. Also, the press ganged up on him and insisted he should quit his band, he experienced increased racism on the road and even from his record company, and he was forced to finance his band out of his songwriting royalties, since they were unable to make enough money on the road. Ellington had to reinvent his band, his music and his business relationships to deal with the changing commercial conditions of the era, just as all other big bands were ceasing regular touring due to reduced business. This chapter details how the Ellington orchestra was able to survive and eventually thrive during this difficult period.

  8. 8. Reinvention and Nadir

    Ellington and Strayhorn reinvented the musical identity of the Ellington orchestra in the early 1950s, as they tailored longer more challenging compositions for use on the new technology of 33RPM recordings. Yet, the first half of the 1950s also represented some of the worst times in Ellington’s career. The black press and black audiences turned their back on him when he was misquoted saying that blacks weren’t “ready” to move beyond segregation. The band made some of their blandest recordings of all time, and the Ellington orchestra’s rankings in music polls dived during their mid-1950s sojourn with Bethlehem and Capitol Records. Cohen argues that it is no accident that this nadir in Ellington’s musical development occurred at the point when tensions between Ellington and Strayhorn were at a height and Strayhorn mostly abandoned the band for a 3 year period. The close and artistically fruitful personal relationship between Ellington and Strayhorn, and its occasional tensions, is examined in Duke Ellington’s America more closely than in any previous book, aided by newly discovered documents and interviews.

  9. 9. Rebirth

    As Strayhorn returned to the band full-time in mid 1956, Ellington scored one of his greatest triumphs ever with a legendary performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, which helped propel him to the cover of Time magazine. Less noticed were the string of unusually varied and high quality albums that the orchestra made after that concert, including tributes to black music, William Shakespeare and John Steinbeck. In the early 1960s, Ellington made albums with some of jazz’s most iconoclastic young artists: Coltrane, Mingus and Roach. Through all these activities and many more, Cohen argues, Ellington was creating a new image for a senior citizen in popular music.

  10. 10. Money

    This chapter focuses on Ellington’s approach to financial matters, aided by the thousands of documents in the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of Ellington’s business records; no other book has used these documents in such a comprehensive manner. The evidence bears out Ellington’s singular approach to business. His priority was not squeezing out every drop of profit from each division in the corporate manner. Instead, his priority was supporting his composing (and the 18 piece band that played it every night), as well as supporting his family, community and friends—a priority he shared with other African American entrepreneurs of the period. The business papers show that he could have stayed home and lived comfortably on royalty income of over $100,000 per year during the 1960s, but he chose instead to live on the road at a loss, making up for the loss with his royalties. The chapter documents how two long-time key business associates probably betrayed Ellington’s trust in the 1960s, which led to the instatement of Ellington’s son Mercer as his road manager, which ushered in a more financially profitable period. Information on Ellington’s long-term and expensive struggles with the Internal Revenue Service is also featured.

  11. 11. 1963 State Department Tour

    In the fall of 1963, after years of urging from the press, the U.S. government sent Ellington and his orchestra on a three month nine country State Department goodwill tour through the Middle East and South Asia. The government could not have picked a more appropriate ambassador and spokesman than Ellington during this period of heightened civil rights activism and violence in the midst of some of the more tense moments of the cold war. Yet, Ellington was no propaganda spouting mouthpiece for the American government. He had his own ideas to communicate as well, ideas expressed for decades that would now receive an unprecedented international airing. With the placing of Ellington on a state tour, music served again as an instrument signifying change in the portrayal and treatment of blacks in America and around the world. For years, Ellington had represented black achievement and artistry like no one else in the jazz and black communities. Starting in the 1960s, the U.S. government appropriated that image to sell a positive vision of American character and respectability. Once again, Ellington was seen as existing in a realm beyond entertainment, as signifying something important about America and the world.

  12. 12. Sacred Concerts

    After at least two years of planning, Ellington and his orchestra performed a Sacred Concert in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in 1965. By late 1973, he had created three separate Sacred Concerts, performed over a hundred times to sold-out churches and secular venues around the world. He called them his “most important” work, though latter day critics have frequently ignored or belittled them. This chapter analyzes their historical, musical and personal context, as well as their beauty and sincerity. The Sacred Concerts represented another chapter of Ellington’s continuing interpretation of the complicated history of blacks and religion in America, an area he had explored previously in other extended works. The idea of a “jazz” orchestra in churches elicited serious resistance and controversy in many quarters at first, especially in the black community. But Ellington’s presentations, highly differentiated from the band’s usual approach, eventually won over critics, and the Sacred Concerts became the most profitable and publicized ventures of the last decade of his career. They represented another important step in Ellington’s efforts to divorce jazz and African American music from an unsavory or limited reputation.

  13. 13. Fighting Nostalgia

    Too often, talk about Ellington centers on the Cotton Club or Swing Era years, but, in many ways, the 1960s and early 1970s represented another golden age for Ellington, a musically and historically rich period. Despite wholesale changes in the music marketplace, he prevailed, doing his music his own way. While peers like Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby performed music in the 1960s that deviated little from their heyday in the 1930s, Ellington pushed forward, releasing albums and compositions that bore little resemblance to his output of decades past. He spent his last years actively fighting nostalgia in order to gain acceptance and airplay for his newest works. This chapter explores his influence over and connections with the emerging rock and modern jazz scenes, as well as the major music and events that transpired in his life during the second half of the 1960s. It also documents the profound change in Ellington’s life and career that occurred when his writing partner Billy Strayhorn died in 1967, using interviews and business records from the Smithsonian’s collections.

  14. 14. 1970s State Tours

    During the 1970s, the State Department greatly increased the Ellington orchestra’s worldwide diplomatic appearances and brought him to dozens of countries, in Asia and South America in particular. However, Ellington’s highest profile mission for the government was his groundbreaking 1971 tour of the Soviet Union, which elicited Beatlemania-like reactions in Soviet audiences and corresponding controversy among Soviet officials. Ellington’s multilayered vision of creative and political freedom provided a sharp contrast to the domineering presence of the Soviet government. The tour helped expose the limits of what the closed society of the Soviet government could shield from their own people. Ellington made the strongest impact any American artist had yet made in the Soviet Union. Newly uncovered diplomatic cables and interviews provide unprecedented detail about this chapter in Ellington’s career.

  15. 15. Final Days

    This short chapter tracks Ellington’s final days: his last tours, his battle with lung cancer, the premiere of his Third Sacred Concert at Westminster Abbey, the writing of his autobiography, his funeral, and some final comments on his significance in American history.