on 14 February 2011
In this book J.E. Hasse has achieved something that's eluded many previous writers on Ellington. He's managed to encapsulate the sheer elusiveness of the man. In so doing he's also managed to draw out the essence of his subject. This is no small achievement either, considering how for all the depth of his public profile Ellington was skilled at keeping people at a distance.
Whilst that skill is by no means a prerequisite of genius, in Ellington's case it could be argued that it was a key to the man, especially in view of his contrariness. For example, for a man who was apparently an incurable and incorrigible flirt, there should never be any doubt that his greatest depth of allegiance was to music, as opposed to anyone or anything more physical. Hasse doesn't make this point in so many words, but then such is the understated elegance of his writing, marked by just the right measure of justified awe, that in its way the entire book makes the point.
Also in Hasse's favour is the fact that he doesn't overstate his case. He achieves this not so much through flights of personal rhetoric as he does through balancing opinions. If a negative opinion was voiced on, say, an Ellington work of the early 1940s Hasse is judicious in bringing it to the reader's attention.
By way of an integral part of the book's structure Hasse also provides discussion at the end of each chronological chapter of key words written in the period the chapter covers. This serves a practical purpose as much as anything else as it facilitates navigation for anyone coming fresh to the six decades of Ellington's music on record.
If Ellington's celebrated as an American genius in the 21st century -and there are many reasons for him to be treated as such- then it should be borne in mind that he wasn't viewed as such in his lifetime, hence the reason why he was being nominated for a Pulitzer prize -for which he was snubbed as it turned out- at the same time as he couldn't eat in diners in some parts of the land of his birth because of the colour of his skin. It was thus the case that Ellington realised his genius despite the circumstances of his life and not because of them. Given his scholarship and erudition it's hardly surprising that Hasse is aware of this, and amongst this book's many attributes it's this one which most resonates.