An American Master…
Interesting piece on Duke Ellington’s music and race in America by Claudia Roth Pierpont in The New Yorker:
What did he feel about—what did he contribute to—the mire of American race relations during the last century? Harvey G. Cohen’s “Duke Ellington’s America” (Chicago; $40) attempts to get under the skin of this apparently most imperturbable of men, and the results, if hardly conclusive, are fascinating. One of Ellington’s few confidantes, his sister, Ruth, believed that he concealed himself under “veil upon veil upon veil,” and Cohen is not the first Ellingtonian to treasure the smallest telltale sign of his subject’s human susceptibilities. There is, for example, an uncharacteristically angry letter to a white business associate with whom Ellington wished to break (which is nevertheless signed “with great respect,” and turns out not to have been sent). 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. Even Ellington’s professional life is examined in circumscribed areas, almost all of which touch at some point upon race. The question is whether, sooner or later, everything did.
Early in the book, Cohen quotes Ellington’s longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn objecting to a movie project about Ellington that Strayhorn was told would have a racial theme. “I don’t think it should be racial because I don’t think he’s racial,” Strayhorn protested. “He is an individual.” But Strayhorn concluded, in a line of thinking that seems emblematic of the era and of the personalities involved, “You don’t have to say the darn thing.” Cohen keeps Ellington’s individuality firmly in sight, while detailing such targeted subjects as his relationship with Mills, the white man who has been lauded for launching Ellington’s career and—both before and after they split, in 1939—accused of exploitation; Ellington’s travels with his band in the harshly segregated South of the nineteen-thirties and forties; the overt, if often forgotten, racial programs of much of his music; and his sometimes contentious relationship with the civil-rights movement of the nineteen-fifties and sixties.
A different set of subjects—Ellington’s musical development, his band members, even his women—might have yielded something closer to the post-racial portrait for which Strayhorn argued, a portrait more in accord with the high personal horizon on which Ellington’s sights were set. But “the darn thing” will not go away, and race remains unsurprisingly essential to the story of America’s first widely recognized black artist, and of what he had to say.