Duke Ellington’s 115th birthday with Terry Teachout, author of Duke: A Life (AUDIO)

Today marks the 115th anniversary of Duke Ellington’s birth. Ellington, who grew up in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood and learned to play piano in the pool halls of U Street, is known as jazz’s most important composer and arranger. That’s because of the lush elegance that put his work in line with his regal personality; the quavering expressiveness of his orchestra’s sound (longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn dubbed it the “Ellington Effect”); and the walloping energy of his rhythm section — which, he emphasized, was always playing an extension of African music.

Terry Teachout. Courtesy jazzwax.com

The most notable book to come out on Ellington in recent years is Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, Terry Teachout’s rigorous and readable biography. Yesterday I spoke to Teachout, the drama critic at the Wall Street Journal and a well-known jazz writer, during my radio show, “On the Margin,” on WPFW-FM. His book pulls no punches, presenting an Ellington whose hunger for glory often led him to deny his musicians the credit they deserved. But it is a powerful, comprehensive work that devotes many elucidative passages to dissecting Ellington’s music, and presents him as a towering figure who expanded the definition of American music more than perhaps anyone else, and who operated always with a strong sense of responsibility to his race and his country.

On the air, our conversation ranged from Ellington’s D.C. upbringing to his love for train travel to the way that his and Strayhorn’s compositional styles complemented each other. Hear the conversation in full below.

Terry Teachout discusses Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington on WPFW-FM



Giovanni Russonello

About Giovanni Russonello

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Giovanni is the founder of CapitalBop, and a music critic for the New York Times. He previously served as a contributor to the Washington Post, the FADER, JazzTimes, NPR Music and others, and hosted “On the Margin,” a books show on WPFW-FM. As head of CapitalBop, he has covered the D.C. jazz scene since 2010. (He is no longer directly involved in the presenting of CapitalBop's concerts.) He graduated from Tufts University with a bachelor’s degree in history, with a focus on African-American history. Reach Giovanni at [email protected] Read him at giovannirussonello.com or nytimes.com/by/giovanni-russonello. Follow him on Twitter at @giorussonello.

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