April is Jazz Appreciation Month, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s classic 1921 musical Shuffle Along is about to hit big on Broadway, so it’s only fitting that I praise a wonderful and timely new book about Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington: An American Composer and Icon, written by Mercedes Ellington and Steven Brower, a beautifully illustrated gem just published by Rizzoli.
There have been many books about the great jazz composer and bandleader. What I love about this new book is that it tells his story not only through the usual biographical text but mostly from photos, memorabilia, concert posters, telegrams, playbills from various theaters he performed in, and even ticket stubs. Many of the illustrations come from the Ellington family archives, and were rarely seen before now.
The book covers the great artist’s trajectory from childhood to his musical beginnings through his storied life all over the world. Some of my favorite illustrations include European concert images and French album ads, sheet music, and White House invitations from the 1960’s and 1970’s. And further documenting the Duke’s many world tours as America’s most suave and courtly jazz ambassador, we see a Russian interview from 1971 plus photos with Ethopian Haile Selassie. In Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Japan, jazz is regarded as America’s classical music, and Ellington is its Bach, its Mozart, its Beethoven.
Ellington established lifelong friendships with other cultural luminaries and musical icons. The book also features appreciations by Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck, and fabled jazz writer and critic Dan Morgenstern.
It’s a beautifully produced book — the best I’ve ever seen on the Duke. Rather than being a dry biography, it’s both a page-turner and visual celebration of a fabulous life and career. The book also paints a vivid portrait of the jazz age and the Harlem Renaissance. I know I’ll be flipping through the pages to enjoy it again and again.