Duke Essay - Critical Essays

Bill Gutman


Gutman has concentrated on the musical life of Ellington, stressing that his life revolved around his work and the people associated with it. Although the author shows Ellington as a compulsive worker who ran his band with “an iron fist in a mink glove,” he emphasizes the sensitive, caring side of this man. Gutman indicates that Ellington used royalty money from records to pay his band members when work was slow or unavailable, thus giving them time to be with their families.

Ellington treated these handpicked musicians as if they were his family, and, if one left, he always believed that the person would return. The music and arrangements that Ellington wrote were for the individual musicians: Without those original band members, the genuine sound of the band cannot be captured and reproduced. Ellington never tried to change the style of a musician, instead choosing to make use of his talents. He once said that “if a man could play seven good notes, his job was to learn to get the most from those seven notes, and no more.” Ellington had a sixth sense of how to bring out the best in his musicians.

Although Ellington was married briefly when young and had a son, Mercer, the most important person in his life was composer Billy Strayhorn, whom he met in 1939. The two men formed a deep friendship and working partnership that spanned twenty-eight years until Strayhorn’s premature death from cancer in 1967. Strayhorn composed “Take the A Train” and “Lush Life,” both top Ellington numbers. Some of their compositions that were written when they were apart are almost identical. Ellington maintained that “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine.”

Gutman shows...

(The entire section is 732 words.)