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A Thorough and Satisfying Effort,
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This review is from: Duke Ellington's America (Paperback)Mr. Cohen has written perhaps the definitive overall biography of the inimitable Duke Ellington, whose larger-than-life life resists easy interpretation or apt commentary. Cohen's thesis is that Duke Ellington contributed incomparably to American culture in the twentieth century in numerous ways: through his music (of course), his views of race (a complex subject), his unique style, and his representation of America abroad. This is a felicitous unifying narrative, a way into most areas of Ellington's robust biography.
Those wanting detailed musical analysis will need to go elsewhere, since this is more a cultural and personal approach than that of a musicologist. However, Cohen understands Ellington's musical stages and his complex relationship to his nearly fifty years as a big band leader--a mark that was never equaled and will never be approached again.
Cohen spends particular attention on Ellington's finances, which, despite his long-term fame, were anything but stable. After the peak of the big bands, Ellington had to subsidize his band with his own profits. He was often in financial straights and had money confiscated by the IRS. It may be too much to ask a bona fide musical genius (no exaggeration here) to be a financial planner, but Duke might have paid a bit more attention to the details of his personal assets.
"Duke Ellington's America" is an outstanding biography of an outstanding and complex man, a man who helped shaped twentieth century America as few others have. And his indomitable influence lives on.