Form and Content
In Duke: The Musical Life of Duke Ellington, Bill Gutman alternates between personal and collective biography: He spans the life, works, and travels of Duke Ellington and explains both the evolution of jazz and the social position of African-American musicians during the early and mid-twentieth century. The book documents Ellington’s contributions to swing and jazz and his compositions of religious scores and African-American music.
Although Gutman describes Ellington’s five decades of one-night stands and worldwide travel in detail in the central section of the book, he begins and ends his work with reflections on Ellington’s profound beliefs and love for religion, music, and those who worked with him. The author also provides a detailed explanation of the evolution of ragtime and jazz, and he consistently describes the social settings in which Ellington’s band formed and evolved.
In the first chapter, the author documents how Ellington received the highest award that a civilian can receive from the United States government: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He received the honor on his seventieth birthday from President Richard M. Nixon. The rest of the book traces the steps that led Ellington to that moment.
Gutman outlines the racial inequality that existed during the swing, jazz, and bigband era. African-American music was danced to and accepted by white society, but the musicians constantly suffered abuse...
(The entire section is 431 words.)