December 14, 1987 12:00 PM

by James Lincoln Collier

Much of this new, alternately provocative and annoying Ellington biography reads like one of those Peanuts battles in which Lucy baits Schroeder by saying, “Beethoven wasn’t so great.” With similar stridency the author—noted for his 1983 book about trumpeter Louis Armstrong—asserts that Ellington “carved his creations not so much with raw talent…but with the chisel of his character.” To support this argument, Collier depicts Ellington as a manipulative man with a strong sense of pride and style but with little self-discipline. Born in 1899 Ellington was raised with “Victorian” values by middle-class parents. Early in life he was exposed to wealth when his father became a butler in the home of a prominent doctor. His mother encouraged him in such a florid manner that he once proclaimed, “I am the grand, noble Duke; crowds will be running to me.” As a child he studied piano haphazardly under a teacher named Clink-scales but was drawn to the instrument later because it was a great way to meet women. (Though married only once, he had numerous affairs.) Overall, Collier sees in Ellington’s character two traits: “a need to control, to dominate those around him and an intense loyalty and protectiveness of these same people.” Collier also offers compositional analyses of such well-known Ellington works as Black and Tan Fantasy and Concerto for Cootie, and provides a sweeping, sometimes colorful history of the social forces that paralleled the development of jazz from New Orleans ragtime to the beginnings of bebop. He refuses perversely to call Ellington a composer in the traditional sense, citing among other things Ellington’s habit of borrowing melodies from his sidemen. The author is also an analogy addict—Ellington is compared to a “card shark” handling his musicians as that practitioner “manipulates the deck.” It would be a relief amidst all the analysis and hyperbole to find an unqualified statement. Since Collier doesn’t offer any, here’s one from Dizzy Gillespie’s memoirs: “Duke Ellington is a great composer because everybody plays his music.” (Oxford, $ 19.95)

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