Saturday, March 09, 2013

Book Review: Duke Ellington: A Spiritual Biography

Edward Kennedy Ellington was an endlessly complex and fascinating man as well as musician, composer, and band-leader. He was one of the leading personalities of twentieth century America with regard to music, race, and America's image around the world. A very thorough treatment of this multi-dimensional man is impressive work, "Duke Ellington's America."

But Ellington's religious views and activities are often lost on the biographers. Janna Tull Steed is an ordained minister and Ellington scholar who delves into his spirituality as her book's theme. All those entranced and enthralled by Duke do well to take her work seriously. Rather than offering a theological critique of Duke's works, Rev. Steed sticks mostly to description and interpretation, and does so in good, if brief, style.

The book features enjoyable many black-and-white photographs as well as a number of short essays set in black on grey. These are not obnoxious call-outs (which litter many a book today), but concentrated thoughts on important Ellingtonian themes.

While Ellington self-identified as a Christian, he was quite superstitious and, for all his generosity and prayerfullness, did not live according to a Christian sexual code. Steed does not go into detail, but Christian jazz lovers, such as myself, will find this troubling.

Rev. Steed pays close attention to Ellington's later "sacred concerts," which he considered the most important works of his career. This is quite a statement, considering a man of his talent and reputation. I have yet to warm to these works, but with Ellington, one must give him the benefit of the doubt and consider whether the fault is in the listener or the composer. A deep man demands deep listening; and I am not done with him yet.

Thank God for Duke Ellington, a man who believed in, prayed to, and wrote music for God. Amen.

1 comment:

Carole said...

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