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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Currently Reading: Duke

I made a mention of this biography of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout previously. It finally came through the library's ebook queue a couple of weeks ago. I am reading it slowly at bedtime.

At 15%, the author has just got to the Cotton Club, a Harlem club owned by a notorious Irish gang boss Owney Madden and his violent legbreakers. The Cotton Club served up light-skinned, scantily-clad showgirls and black jazz musicians to an exclusively white clientele who ventured to Harlem for a flavor of the exotic. By all account Madden is the worst type of gangster. But he paid the musicians and showgirls fair to good wages and never bothered them artistically or bodily. Oddly, working for the worst gangsters afforded by-proxy protection for them from other troubles.

Curiously, Madden frequently played bridge with Ellington and Bubber Miley (the trumpeter) after the shows. Another band member (Sonny Greer) said he "loved Duke and loved me." They were said to get along quite well. In later years, Ellington never talked about the segregation and seediness of the Cotton Club and called it a classy joint.

If I were to write this into fiction it would be way too cheesy and cliched. I guess I'd have to do it in Chinese. [g]

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Other mind-tickling observations about Duke so far:

He showed early talent in art and started a sign-painting business in the U Street neighborhood when he was but a teenager. He worked on that and music was only moonlighting. He made quite a lot of money from both sides of the business, enough to buy a house (!) before he hit 20. 

Musicians who worked with him and knew him well complained about his deft manipulation of them ... and admitted that his manipulation made them better. 

He couldn't study anything systematically to save his life. Instead he would always pick things up bits and pieces here and there, like driving around Central Park in a cab with a classical musical teacher to learn the basics of composition. The rest he just made up as he went along.

He loved contrasts.

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