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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

New Biography on Duke

Serendipity is at work lately. I just borrowed a book yesterday that's a compilation of jokes and anecdotes jazz musicians told each other. Today I heard an interview on the radio with the author of a new Duke Ellington biography.

One of the stories Teachout told was this. Ellington had a scar on his left cheek, which could not be seen on stage (because the pianist always sits with the right side of his face to the audience) and was rarely photographed, but the scar is visible on the cover of his book (above). How did he get the scar?

At 19 Ellington married his high school sweetheart Edna Thompson. In the late 1920s, when he was a big success at the Cotton Club in Harlem, Edna and their son Mercer came up from Washington to live with him. One day in 1927 or 28, when Ellington and Edna were in bed together, without warning, Edna pulled out a razor and said, "I know what you've been up to and I'm going spoil the pretty looks" (or something to that effect) and slashed his left cheek. Ellington, who was 28 or 29 at the time, ran out of the house. Edna left New York and went back to DC. They separated but he didn't divorce her.

I gasped when I heard it. Very rarely do you get a dramatic moment in life that illuminates two persons so thoroughly and deeply.

Duke Ellington was a relentless womanizer and had countless affairs with women all his life. Edna's revenge obviously was not effective in stopping him. Jazz pianist Marian McFarland said he had so much sex appeal that it was (almost?) frightening. He was also enigmatic to men and women alike and ultimately unknowable. 

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