HE WAS THE MOST CHRONIC of procrastinators, a man who never did today what he could put off until next month, or next year. He left letters unanswered, contracts unsigned, watches unworn, and longtime companions unwed, and the only thing harder than getting him out of bed in the afternoon was getting him to finish writing a new piece of music in time for the premiere. “I don’t need time,” he liked to say. “What I need is a deadline!”
Though he carried himself like a prince of the realm, he was the son of a butler and the grandson of a slave. Washington, D.C., where Duke Ellington was born in 1899, was one of America’s most segregated cities, but it also had a black middle class that was proud and self-aware. Ellington’s parents belonged to it, and their only son, a high-school dropout whose regal demeanor belied his poor grades and seeming lack of interest in music, went out of his way to acquire its manners. “Every time you walk out [on] the street and you’re exposed to a white citizen, you know,” he said, “you’re acting in behalf of the race.” That was why he never let his guard down: he knew that there would always be somebody looking.
Ellington was, after Louis Armstrong, jazz’s biggest celebrity, as well as the first jazz musician to be widely hailed as an artist of consequence—and not just by his fellow jazzmen, but also by such distinguished classical musicians as Constant Lambert, Aaron Copland, and Percy Grainger. Yet he was also, like Armstrong, a popular entertainer whose music was meant to please a mass audience. Long before the Swing Era, his band was seen in films and heard on network radio, and long after most of the other bandleaders who followed him into the limelight faded into obscurity, he continued to perform on network TV and girdle the globe, playing “Sophisticated Lady,” “Mood Indigo,” “Solitude,” “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” and the other hits that had made him famous (if never rich). Twelve thousand people came to his funeral at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, his adopted home town and the place that he loved best. By then his baggy eyes and sardonic flattery were almost as familiar to the mourners as his rich-textured music.
Underneath his soigné exterior, Ellington was a self-centered hedonist who lived a nomadic existence in which everything was subordinated to his art—and, insofar as possible, his pleasure. His selfishness was unswerving, though it did not exclude benevolence, if only on his own terms. He was at once deeply (if superstitiously) religious and a tireless philanderer who, in the words of an admiring friend, had the sexual appetite of “a romping, stomping alley cat.” He was careful to keep his love life out of the papers, just as he tried never to show his vulnerability to anyone who might take advantage of it—but vulnerable he was, and would always be. While he believed that his music was (to use the phrase with which he described his favorite artists) “beyond category,” he was painfully conscious of the racial slights that beset him throughout his life, even after he became a star.
None of it showed. The rage, the humiliation, the unbridled sensuality: All were kept far from prying eyes. His fans saw only what he wished them to see, and nothing more. So did his colleagues. “I think all the musicians should get together one certain day and get down on their knees and thank Duke,” said Miles Davis. Yet to Ellington’s own musicians, he was a riddle without an answer, an unknowable man who hid behind a high wall of ornate utterances and flowery compliments that grew higher as he grew older.
In 1944 a journalist dubbed Ellington “the hot Bach,” a comparison that is likely to have vexed him. A decade earlier he had claimed that “you can’t stay in the European conservatory and play the negro music.” He insisted that his own achievement was unique unto itself, so much so that he refused to call his music jazz. “I don’t write jazz,” he said. “I write Negro folk music.” He was wrong: His music is one of the cornerstones of jazz. But he was right about the singularity of his music, just as he himself was as singular as a human being can be, an improbably gaudy bird of paradise who spoke at least one undeniable truth in the self-interview that ends his autobiography:
Q. Can you keep from writing music? Do you write in spite of yourself?
A. I don’t know how strong the chains, cells, and bars are. I’ve never tried to escape.
Terry Teachout, the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, is the author of Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, from which this excerpt is adapted. His other writings include Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong and Satchmo at the Waldorf, a one-man play about Armstrong.