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Duke Ellington and his world : a biography /
A.H. Lawrence.
New York : Routledge, 2001.
xvii, 492 p.
041593012X (alk. paper)
More Details
New York : Routledge, 2001.
041593012X (alk. paper)
catalogue key
Includes list of compositions (p. 451-464), bibliographical references (p. 465-466) and index.
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
A. H. Lawrence was a professional jazz frombonist from 1944-48, playing with the bands of Hot Lips Page, Benny Carter, and Luis Russell. Through Russell, he met and befriended Ellington and remained friends with him throughout his life. Lawrence has worked as assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts Medical School and lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He served as a consultant to the Smithsonian Institution for the exhibit, Jazz in Paris 1915-40
First Chapter

Chapter One

Ellington opens his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress with the story of his own creation in the form of a fairy tale. "Once upon a time," he begins, a beautiful woman marries a handsome gentleman and soon they are blessed with a bouncing baby boy. The woman is his mother, Daisy Kennedy, and the man is his father, James Edward Ellington. The blessed boy, of course, is their son Edward, later known as Duke, who was born on April 29, 1899. Ellington's only son, Mercer, said that his grandmother Daisy had such a strong influence that all the Ellington men felt a strong urge to preserve her family name. Thus, Duke Ellington was Edward Kennedy Ellington, his son was Mercer Kennedy Ellington, and his grandson was Edward Kennedy Ellington II.

    Born on January 4, 1879, Daisy was the oldest of nine children. In his autobiography, Ellington described Daisy's father, James William Kennedy, as a captain in the District of Columbia police force, and the book includes a picture of him in uniform. However, there were no black senior officers in the D.C. police until Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, and there is no evidence in the census reports that James Kennedy held that occupation. Some African-Americans were deputized police officers for special events in the black community, and it may be under those circumstances that Daisy's father held the title.

    According to the family, James William Kennedy was born a slave on a plantation in King and Queen's County, Virginia, the illegitimate son of the owner and a slave woman. As a young man, James fell in love with a fellow slave, herself of mixed blood, part African and part Cherokee. This relationship was interrupted when James's master freed him, as slave owners often did with their mixed-race sons, and he emigrated to the District of Columbia. After Emancipation, James returned to Virginia and brought his love back to Washington. Their first child, Daisy, born on January 4, 1879, was described as light-skinned, very pretty, and cultivated.

    James Edward Ellington was born in Lincolnton, North Carolina, on April 15, 1879, and moved with his parents to Washington D.C. in 1886. They were among thousands of blacks who had moved north, away from the rural and semirural towns of the South, between the Civil War and World War I. His mother found employment as housekeeper and receptionist to Dr. Middleton F. Cuthbert, a prominent white physician listed in the District Social Register. At age seventeen, J. E., as he was known, was hired as a coachman for Cuthbert, and over time he progressed to driver, butler, and, by 1919, caretaker and general handyman.

    Given the status of his employer, J. E. carried a great deal of weight in the black community. And it appears that he was also a charmer who swept Daisy off her feet. "You think Duke was charming?" I was told by a woman who had been a chorus girl at the Cotton Club in the 1930s. "He couldn't hold a candle to his daddy. That man could charm the birds out of the trees."

    William "Sonny" Greer, a charter member of the Ellington orchestra, offered this portrait of J. E. The band had arrived at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto just as it had begun to snow. A young woman was walking out the front door and exclaimed with surprise about the change of weather. J. E. took off his hat, made a sweeping bow, and declared to the startled, but pleased, young lady, "Those millions of snowflakes are in celebration of your great beauty."

    J. E. and Daisy were married on January 3, 1898. Their first child was stillborn, or died shortly after birth. Daisy's second pregnancy became emotionally complicated toward its end. According to Mercer Ellington, she went on an excursion on the Potomac River and the boat sank. It was a frightening experience. According to her sister Florence, she became phobic and refused to leave the house. Daisy's mother dispatched one of her sisters to live with her until the child was born.

    This prenatal trauma, combined with the loss of Daisy's first child, carried over into Ellington's early years. One of Ellington's early memories is of being ill with pneumonia. He remembers his mother "kneeling, sitting, standing to lean over his bed praying and crying."

    There is also contemporary evidence that, following her marriage, Daisy became depressed and remained intermittently so throughout her life. Her youngest sister Florence told an interviewer, "Daisy was the `Belle of the Ball' until she got married. Then she changed. But once Edward was born, she was alive again, but she was never the girl she was before she married J. E."

    Shortly after their son was born, they moved into J. E.'s parents' house at 2129 Ward Place in Northwest Washington (now 1217 22d Street N.W.). Greer told the author that after he met Duke in 1919, Daisy would occasionally invite him for Sunday dinner. She was always a gracious hostess, inquiring about Greer's family, even though she didn't know them personally. Taking note of his slight stature, she would always ask if he was getting enough to eat. He said she always looked sad, "[b]ut when Duke walked in, she'd light up!"

    Daisy was the oldest in a family of five girls and four boys, two of whom died at an early age. Ellington said that all of the girls, even after they were married, spent a great deal of time at his mother's house. He felt some of them even preferred it to their own homes. "It was a wonderful, warm family," he wrote. "And whatever one owned they all felt they owned a part of it, and that included me."

    He was right. All the women in the family felt he was special. Ellington was the first grandchild on his mother's side, and, according to Ellington, he was "pampered and spoiled by aunts and female cousins alike." One of his cousins recounted, "I never seen nothin' like it.... We were so happy to see him we thought he was the grandest thing in the world." Sonny Greer told the author that a close relative described the family interaction as "Daisy, the Queen, and Edward, the Crown Prince."

    While perceiving him as someone special, his family introduced him to the world of elegance at an early age, with assistance from Dr. Cuthbert, J. E.'s employer. His medical practice included the socially prominent, as well as the politically well-connected. The Morgenthaus and DuPonts were known to be his patients. When Ellington had to have a hernia repaired at age eighteen, the physician recommended by Dr. Cuthbert was later appointed surgeon general.

    As the butler, J. E. made the decisions around the Cuthbert house and oversaw the activities of the cook and maid. He also catered many of the parties Cuthbert threw for his well-placed friends and associates. Mercer Ellington remembers both his grandparents helping prepare food for these occasions. They also worked with other family members for different caterers, including on one occasion, a reception at the White House.

    Being in service to Washington society had another (albeit minor) benefit for the Ellingtons. Their employer would pass on to them used household articles, generally of good quality. Over time the family owned fine secondhand sets of silverware and china. "Maybe we never had a complete genuine set," Mercer stated, "but all the silver was first class." He said that both his father and grandfather had an extensive knowledge of glassware, china, and silver.

    There were excellent cooks in the family, and dinners at home tended to be quite grand. Mercer noted that the table was always set like one of the many elegant functions his grandfather had butlered. "This you might say is where the `Dukedom' began," Mercer recalled, "his experience of being around when his father was working for splendid people." Ellington himself remembers being pressed into duty as a page at one of these functions, when the boy who usually performed this task was unavailable.

    Being the pampered son in this elegant household had its disadvantages too. Ellington's mother, besides being depressed and fearful, had ambivalent feelings about Duke's growing up. For example, when he was five years old, she listed his age as six so she could send him off to the Garnet Elementary School. But having sent him off early, she would secretly follow him to school every day and often wait for him outside the building at the end of the day.

    Her anxieties about him were further exacerbated the following year when Ellington was hit on the head with a baseball bat during a game. She rushed out in the street and took him to Dr. Cuthbert, who closed the wound with stitches. Ellington said, "The mark is still there, but I soon got over it. With that, however, my mother decided I should take piano lessons."

    Most middle-class black families of that era had a piano in their home; the Ellingtons had two. Daisy Ellington played the instrument quite well, mainly popular and semiclassical pieces. Ellington said that when he was a young child, one day his mother played the "Rosary" with such affect, he "busted out crying." She also played hymns and ragtime but, like most middle-class black women of her era, she disapproved of the blues.

    Duke's father played the piano by ear and could sing excerpts from several operas and operettas. During card games at the Ellington house, J. E. would lead a group of his friends in songs like "Sweet Adeline." According to Mercer, his grandfather made up the arrangements, hummed the individual parts, and conducted from the piano. Many years later, Ellington composed The Gird Suite , a work incorporating four songs his father and friends had rendered in barbershop fashion: "Sweet Adeline," "Peg O' My Heart," "Juanita," and "Sylvia."

    After deciding on piano lessons, his family placed him under the tutelage of the aptly named Mrs. Clinkscales. According to Ellington, the lessons did not go too well. He missed more lessons than he took. At this point in his life, at age ten or eleven, he didn't feel the piano was his recognized talent, and he didn't take it seriously. He said, "After all, baseball, football, track, and athletics were what real he-men were identified with."

    Fortunately, Duke did have a real he-man to identify with, his cousin William "Sonny" Ellington, the child of his father's older brother, John. In his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress , Duke never mentions his father's family, with the exception of Sonny. Yet, there is evidence of a large extended family on J. E.'s side: Estimates vary from fourteen to twenty members. Perhaps his mother did not approve of them, because Ellington stated that Sonny was the only person she would allow to take him "out of her sight."

    Sonny was a combination older brother, mentor, confidant, and role model for the young Ellington. He would arrive at the Ellington household on Saturday morning, and they would stay out until dinner, roaming the city. Together they would explore Rock Creek Park, the National Zoo, or the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Sonny was also an excellent athlete, renowned for his prowess in baseball and track. He taught Duke how to swim, and a year later, Ellington saved a boy from drowning. That child, Rex Stewart, would later play in Ellington's orchestra.

    Duke was also influenced by his strong identification with his father. J. E. was an elegant man, an excellent ballroom dancer, and a connoisseur of wines. According to Mercer, J. E.'s presence was guaranteed to light up any party. Late in his life, Ellington wrote a song inspired by a statement he heard his father say to women, "Gee, you make that hat look pretty."

    Daisy Ellington was a very religious woman and an avid churchgoer. Every Sunday she took her son to two churches, the 19th Street Baptist Church, where her family worshiped, and the John Wesley AME Zion of her husband's family. As a young child, Ellington was not aware of the difference in denominations. The important thing to him was sharing the religious experience with his mother. It gave him an extraordinary feeling of security. He said, "Believing gave me that, as though I was some special child. My mother would always say, `Edward you are blessed, you don't have anything to worry about, Edward you are blessed.'"

    Ellington always maintained that he was guided by some mysterious light to help him make crucial decisions. He felt that whenever he reached a critical point in his life, "he ran into someone who told him what and which way to go to get what or where he wanted to go or do."

    Duke's cousin recounted to an interviewer an incident that took place when Duke was in his teens:

He used to come to get his dinner and he would say, "You know Mother, I'm going to be one of the greatest men in the world." And she used to say, "Oh, Boy, hush your mouth." He'd say "Yes, I am." Then he would kiss her when she would be scolding him. And he would say, "Everybody in the world is going to call me Duke Ellington. I'm ze Duke, ze grand and ze glorious Duke." We used to laugh, it was so funny. He predicted his future. Everybody in the whole world did call him Duke. He said, "I'm going to bow before kings and queens." And he did that, too .

    Freud said, "He who knows his mother's love and is secure in that knowledge will never know failure." Daisy Ellington seemed to have provided her son with just such secure love, so that Edward lived a truly blessed life.

Copyright © 2001 A. H. Lawrence. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 2001-04-01:
Inspired by the lyrics of Stevie Wonder's 1976 hit "Sir Duke," this work contains an interesting and controversial mix of material. Lavezzoli, a musicologist and jazz musician, has interviewed Ellington colleagues (e.g., drummer Butch Ballard) and aficionados (e.g., recording technician and collector Jerry Valburn) to gain some insight into the great bandleader's music. Interspersed among those dialogs are chapters on musicians that Lavezzoli believes Ellington influenced. The author's choices of Frank Zappa, Prince, Sly Stone, George Clinton, James Brown, and Ravi Shankar will certainly arouse controversy among rock, funk, soul, and Hindustani purists; however, presenting Ellington through the work of stylistically dissimilar musicians forces the reader to listen to Ellington with new ears. Still, the approach is unusual and makes for a rather loose read. This is recommended for larger public libraries and may be of interest to smaller libraries with significant popular music book collections. [Ellington fans should also note that this month, Routledge will publish A.H. Lawrence's Duke Ellington and His World: A Biography (ISBN 0-415-93012-X. $35), which Schirmer was originally slated to publish in 1999. Schirmer, however, dropped the book at the last minute. LJ ran a review of that edition in 11/15/99. Ed.] James E. Perone, Mount Union Coll., Alliance, OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This item was reviewed in:
Library Journal, April 2001
Globe & Mail, May 2001
Boston Globe, September 2001
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Main Description
Based on lengthy interviews with Ellington's bandmates, family, and friends, Duke Ellington and His Worldoffers a fresh look at this legendary composer. The first biography of the composer written by a fellow musician and African-American, the book traces Ellington's life and career in terms of the social, cultural, political, and economic realities of his times. Beginning with his birth in Washington, DC, through his first bands and work at the legendary Cotton Club, to his final great extended compositions, this book gives a thorough introduction to Ellington's music and how it was made. It also illuminates his personal life because, for Ellington, music was his life and his life was a constant inspiration for music.
Main Description
Based on lengthy interviews with Ellington's bandmates, family, and friends,Duke Ellington and His Worldoffers a fresh look at this legendary composer. The first biography of the composer written by a fellow musician and African-American, the book traces Ellington's life and career in terms of the social, cultural, political, and economic realities of his times. Beginning with his birth in Washington, DC, through his first bands and work at the legendary Cotton Club, to his final great extended compositions, this book gives a thorough introduction to Ellington's music and how it was made. It also illuminates his personal life because, for Ellington, music was his life and his life was a constant inspiration for music. WhenA. H. Lawrencewas a young trombone player in the '40s, he met Ellington and befriended the elder musician. From that point forward, he closely followed Ellington's career. Because of his deep love for Ellington's music, he began interviewing many of the stars ofEllington's early bands, hoping to capture from them, before they passed away, their memories and insights. Drawing on these interviews with legendary musicians-including many who worked with Ellington from his earliest days, such as drummer Sonny Greer, who played with Ellington's first bands in the '20s and who continued in his bands through the early '50s-the book offers a rounded and human portrait of the great composer and musician. Ellington's son Mercer was particularly forthcoming, offering new information about his childhood and experiences working with his father. The insights into the family that he shared have not previously been published. The result is a thorough biography that offers unique insights into Ellington: the man and his music. This fresh and balanced portrayal will undoubtedly add to our understanding of one of America's greatest artists and bring renewed attention to his distinguished body of work.
Publisher Fact Sheet
Based on lengthy interviews with Ellington's bandmates, family, & friends, DUKE ELLINGTON AND HIS WORLD is the first biography of the composer written by a fellow musician & African-American. The book traces Ellington's life & career in terms of the social, cultural, political, & economic realities of his times.
Unpaid Annotation
This masterful biography, written by a professional trombonist who closely followed the jazz legend's career from the early 1940s, includes interviews with the stars of Ellington's early bands, Ellington's son, Mercer, and offers previously unpublished stories about Ellington's childhood. Photos.
Table of Contents
Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introductionp. xi
Preludep. xv
Chapters One through Forty-fivep. 1
Epiloguep. 403
Chronologyp. 405
Biographiesp. 423
Band Membersp. 437
Compositionsp. 451
Bibliographyp. 465
Source Notesp. 467
Indexp. 477
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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