A Conversation with TERRY TEACHOUT, author of DUKE Exactly how important a composer was Duke Ellington?
Ellington was the most important jazz composer of the twentieth century, and one of the greatest composers in any
genre of music. Not only was he a major composer of purely instrumental music, but he wrote some of the century’s most successful popular songs, including “Mood Indigo” and “Sophisticated Lady,” many of which continue to this day to be performed and recorded. No jazz composer has left a deeper mark on world culture. What kind of a person was he in private life? Was he trustworthy? Loyal? Honest?
That’s a tricky question! Like many geniuses, Ellington was almost entirely self-centered, though his selfishness didn’t exclude kindness and benevolence—on his own terms. But a fair number of his sidemen considered him unscrupulous, and I can’t say that I blame them for feeling that way. Was Ellington as great a lover as he’s said to have been?
Even greater, by all accounts. Throughout his life Ellington was catnip to women, and he rarely said “no” when they invited him into their beds. I didn’t even try to count his lovers—I can’t count that high. Did Ellington really write all of his hit songs and instrumental compositions—or did he have unacknowledged collaborators?
He had many
unacknowledged collaborators, starting with Billy Strayhorn, his closest musical associate. He wasn’t a plagiarist, but to an extent that’s not generally realized or fully understood by most of his fans, Ellington created his music collectively—though he was always the auteur
, the man who made the ultimate decisions, and he was solely responsible for writing most of his major instrumental pieces. On the other hand, bits and pieces of the melodies of most of his big pop hits were written by his sidemen. To be sure, he usually gave credit where it was due, but not always, and he tried whenever possible to buy those bits and pieces for flat fees instead of cutting his collaborators in on the so
Praise for Pops; A Life of Louis Armstrong:
“Teachout restores this jazzman to his deserved place in the pantheon of American artists.”
–The New York Times
"Thirty-eight years after Louis Armstrong's death, Terry Teachout has made the possible, possible: He has written a definitive narrative biography of the greatest jazz musician of the twentieth century."
–San Francisco Chronicle
“Teachout excels at conveying the interplay between Armstrong the artist and Armstrong the entertainer, and at examining the particular challenge of his legacy.”
–The New Yorker
“[An] exceptional biography… Upon finishing this definitive biography, the reader is instructed to flip to the discography, download every last song, listen and grin the hell back.”
–The Washington Post
Amazon Best Books of the Month, December 2009
“Crafted with a musician's ear and an historian's eye, Pops is a vibrant biography of the iconic Louis Armstrong that resonates with the same warmth as ol' Satchmo’s distinctive voice. Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout draws from a wealth of previously unavailable material – including over 650 reels of Armstrong's own personal tape recordings – to create an engaging profile that slips behind the jazz legend's megawatt smile. Teachout reveals that the beaming visage of "Reverend Satchelmouth" was not a mark of racial subservience, but a clear symbol of Louis's refusal to let anything cloud the joy he derived from blowing his horn. "Faced with the terrible realities of the time and place into which he had been born," explains Teachout, "he didn't repine, but returned love for hatred and sought salvation in work." Armstrong was hardly impervious to the injustices of his era, but in his mind, nothing was more sacred than the music.
“Teachout turns to another mighty pillar of 20th-century American culture, Louis Armstrong, a black man born at the turn of the century in the poorest quarter of New Orleans who by the end of his life was known and loved in every corner of the earth. … Teachout brings a fresh perspective… Teachout's portrait reminds us why we fell in love with Armstrong's music in the first place.”
–Publishers Weekly Starred Review
"To this fine, exhaustively researched...biography, Teachout brings an insider's knowledge--he was a jazz musician before launching a career as cultural critic and biographer."
–National Post The Afterword
"No one does better in exploring Armstrong's social context than Teachout."
Praise for The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken
“Teachout simplifies the process for the casual reader, distilling the weight of information on Mencken into a tidy, fascinating biography that has much of the neat phrasing and sly wit that the rancorous writer displayed himself.”
"A lively and unvarnished portrayal of a complex and fascinating figure."
–The Baltimore Sun
Praise for All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine
“His book is pithy, conversational and vivid, touching on all the major points of Balanchine's life. ... Balanchine's ballets are