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  • Duke Ellington’s America by Harvey G. Cohen
  • Kevin Whitehead
Duke Ellington’s America. By Harvey G. Cohen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2010.

Cultural historian Harvey G. Cohen never spells out the grand idea behind Duke Ellington’s America, but gives a clue in a footnote regarding the maestro’s celebrated early 1940s orchestra: “I have mainly avoided discussing the compositions from this period that have attracted the most discussion” (603) such as “Ko-Ko” and “Harlem Air Shaft.” Cohen’s undeclared m.o. is to focus on aspects of Ellington’s life and career neglected or under-scrutinized by at least some biographers, notably (starting in 1946) Barry Ulanov, Don George, Mercer Ellington/Stanley Dance, Derek Jewell, James Lincoln Collier, Mark Tucker (counting The Early Years) and John Edward Hasse.

Cohen has examined scores of documents unavailable to most of the above, having extensively mined the Smithsonian’s trove of Ellingtonia (acquired under Hasse’s aegis in 1988), including scrapbooks, clipping files, contracts and business correspondence. Cohen also draws on dozens of oral histories and interviews with Duke’s associates, and conducted many of his own, dating back to the mid-1990s.

For the pre-WWII years, the book is especially valuable for the many ways it illuminates Ellington’s dealings with his generously compensated manager Irving Mills, and how Mills effectively shaped Ellington’s reputation as a serious composer not to be lumped with other jazz bandleaders. Mills’ publicists blew out blizzards of press releases pushing a good story which happened to be true. The Mills material alone makes this book invaluable.

Many chapters are a series of mini-essays on related topics. Chapter 3 (“Serious Listening”) looks at Duke’s first national theater tour on the Publix circuit in 1931, at his appearances in various 1930s feature films and shorts, his 1933 UK tour, and a tour of the Southern US later the same year. In their own ways, each of those enterprises reinforced the message Mills was selling. Theater tours meant Duke’s music wasn’t just for dancing. (Cohen asserts no black or white band had toured the [End Page 225] Publix circuit before, but for perspective might have mentioned earlier Paul Whiteman tours regularly included theater engagements.) In England, Ellington was received as a modernist, helping to promote the idea of American culture in general, despite some inevitable don’t-believe-the-hype pushback in the press. The orchestra set new standards for jazz performance in the UK; after hearing “Ring Dem Bells,” English drummers adopted what they called “Ellington chimes” (118). Touring the South by Pullman car months later, Ellington and his players both projected a stylish image, and largely shielded themselves from racist indignities.

Cohen is strong on a 1951 controversy, huge in its time and now largely forgotten, in which Ellington was quoted in the Baltimore Afro-American and other papers, as saying “We ain’t ready yet” for full integration into American society—never mind that his whole persona, many public statements, and numerous musical works devoted to African American achievement had long argued the opposite view (301). But the picture is complex; Cohen demonstrates Duke’s preferred tactics for advancement tended to be less confrontational than boycotts and sit-ins. Image-wise, that flap was Ellington’s Cosby moment. The controversy flared up again when he got an NAACP prize eight years later, and he was still grousing about it in the ’70s.

Duke Ellington’s America affords an essential perspective on Ellington’s 1960s and ’70s global tours for the US State Department, viewed through embassy reports and diplomatic communiqués. As impromptu ambassador Duke got excellent marks for graciousness, patience, co-operation, and parrying hostile questions about US race relations. The only major wrinkle was the surprise arrival of his aristocratic companion Fernanda de Castro Monte, joining the entourage in New Delhi in 1963. The diplomats balked, but one of them soon conceded she had “the hardest job of anyone connected with the tour” (436).

Cohen admirably places Ellington in a national/international cultural context; the book can make even unmusical readers see his worth. Its main flaw, aside from a rather boosterish tone...


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