Duke Ellington’s America

book cover


“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.

Arguing that Duke Ellington’s “significance went far beyond the musical realm,” Harvey G. Cohen…places Ellington’s life as a public figure and “culture hero” in a larger social and political context. Others have written about his connection to the civil rights movement, or the many State Department tours on which he and his remarkable band functioned as cultural ambassadors during the cold war. Cohen makes such matters his primary concern.

There are not many artists whose lives can bear the weight of such a non-art-oriented treatment. Ellington, who for much of his career was not just a musician but also a symbol—of jazz as high art, of America as a land of opportunity—is one of them, and the story of his place in the world turns out to be well worth telling.

Cohen’s in-depth examination of Ellington and civil rights is especially fascinating…Cohen’s analysis of how Ellington negotiated the vagaries of the music business, and particularly how hard he worked to remain relevant in a fickle marketplace…is among this book’s many strengths.”

Peter Keepnews, New York Times, 6 June 2010

“Harvey G. Cohen’s ‘Duke Ellington’s America‘ attempts to get under the skin of this apparently most imperturbable of men, and the results, if hardly conclusive, are fascinating…Cohen’s extremely intelligent and formidably documented book—a welcome change from much that has been published about Ellington—is not a standard biography; Ellington’s personal life and sexual mores are officially beyond its scope. Nor is it a critical work, since it contains no musical analysis and not a great deal of musical description. Cohen’s long hours in the Smithsonian’s huge trove of Ellington papers were devoted to the business records and the scrapbooks, and, as his title suggests, he has broad social issues on his mind.”

Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker, 17 May 2010

“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, th 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 hat 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.

Cohen avoids the Adornian opposition of benign art and a corrupt culture industry. Instead he demonstrates how Ellington’s artistic success was inextricably linked to the marketing strategy devised by Irving Mills, who became his manager, and business partner in 1926…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.”

David Schiff, Times Literary Supplement (cover story), 11 June 2010

“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…One of the many valuable aspects of Duke Ellington’s America is the ample space it gives to…later decades, correcting a long-standing tendency to focus more on the work of the 1930s and (especially) the 1940s.”

Geoffrey O’Brien, New York Review of Books

“Jazz biographies tend to be catalogs of performances, assembled in the hope that a person may emerge out of the work. But Ellington was much more than a travelling musician. He was a brand, a corporation, a composer and a publisher…such careers generate great paper trails to tempt ambitious biographers, and often, great biographies. This may be one of them. Cohen…has drilled into the vast Ellington collection of the Smithsonian and produced a work that presents Ellington as the outcome of a pragmatic business plan, a unique product of American marketing and advertising that created a black cultural hero specifically, for white consumption; one that accommodated, challenged and helped alter the Byzantine racial codes of mid-century America.”


Another door-stopper of a book that’s worth writing about and, even more so, reading…Cohen doesn’t draw attention to his innovatory research, except via voluminous endnotes…The research achievement of this author, and his readability, are far too impressive not to merit wholesale recommendation.”

Brian Priestley, Jazzwise

“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. Ellington’s struggle to reach his tremendous musical goals will be much better understood as a result of Duke Ellington’s America…Dr. Cohen presents a very broad and clear view of the jazz and popular music world during much of the twentieth-century as he closely examines the extraordinary life of Duke Ellington in America and as a world-renowned musician. This fine book is a welcome addition to the ongoing study of Ellington, the man and musician. Highly recommended.”

Kenny Burrell, jazz guitar legend and Professor of Music and Ethnomusicology, Director of UCLA Jazz Studies Program

“Cohen’s volume presents a narrative history that takes us from Ellington’s early days in the black Washington enclave to the great man’s death in May 1974. It is substantial, richly sourced, intelligent and, in many ways, persuasive. And unlike many other writers on Ellington, Cohen gives proper attention to all phases of Ellington’s career, and in so doing unveils information that is new or has been overlooked…this is an important work and one that Ellington scholarship will benefit from and draw on for new debates.”

Times Higher Education, (Book of the Week)

“As much a historian of business as of music, Cohen sets out to explain the cultural recognition of Ellington's ‘genius’…His persuasively argued case is that Ellington’s marketing was no less carefully orchestrated than his compositions, and the longevity and success of Ellington’s career -- unique among black bandleaders -- were no in small part the product of a highly adventurous business plan.”

“What Ellington wished to achieve would have seemed outlandish to many of his contemporaries: to project himself as a major American composer at a time when not only black music and not only popular music but American composition itself was sorely lacking in domestic cachet. Not until the second half of the twentieth century, Cohen observes, would Americans cast off their artistic inferiority complex…[yet] on the eve of the Second World War, Ellington’s ‘orchestral ingenuities’ were being likened to those of Strauss and Rimsky-Korsakov. ‘Old stereotypes and hierarchies, cultural and racial, still stood,’ Cohen surmises, ‘but on increasingly shaky foundations.’”

Literary Review (May 2010)

“An excellent piece of cultural history, grounded in fantastic sources, including Duke Ellington’s papers and scrapbooks, and interviews with his players and other jazzmen, a treasure trove that future scholars will mine for decades. Cohen rightfully places Ellington in the forefront of African American desires for freedom, dignity, and cultural equality, while also offering a fascinating account of the nature of his creative genius.”

Lewis Erenberg, author of Swingin’ the Dream:  Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture

“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 Ellington’s albums and major compositionsm 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.”

Burton Peretti, author of Lift Every Voice: The History of African American Music

“Cohen adds to the dozens of books about jazz great Duke Ellington with a new approach. Unlike Mark Tucker’s Ellington, John Edward Hasse’s Beyond Category, and Ellington’s own Music Is My Mistress, 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.”

Library Journal