Books

Book Intersects the Swinging Lives and Legacies of the Duke, the Count, and Satchmo

In a sure sign that this was a staged photo, elegant bandleader/pianist/songwriter Duke Ellington is running FROM avid female fans.
Frank Driggs Collection/Smithsonian National Museum of American History
In a sure sign that this was a staged photo, elegant bandleader/pianist/songwriter Duke Ellington is running FROM avid female fans.
Book cover
Recently, jazz journalist James Kaplan published 3 Shades of Blue. It’s a 3-in-1 biography of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans that covers their life and music both individually and during their collaboration on Davis’ seminal Kind of Blue album.

Now, author Larry Tye takes a similar approach in his own 3-in-1 look at three of jazz’s greatest big band leaders in The Jazz Men: How Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie Transformed America (416 pp., $32.50, Mariner Books).

And while the royally-monikered Duke (of New York), the Count (of Kansas City), and Satchmo (of New York via Chicago and New Orleans) did not physically cross paths often, Tye’s work has a much broader focus than Kaplan’s.

It embraces narratives not only about the three men’s lives, passions, personalities, foibles, music, place in culture, and stage/studio practices, but wider social and racial issues.

Nye nails the early bios of each man and the way they came to the music from wildly vary backgrounds. He then seamlessly weaves the three men in a narrative under themed topics covering the rise to stardom, dealings with wives, mistresses, managers, critics, finances, audiences, religion and finally their latter year as “elder statemen.”

Each hew to a broad-stroked archetype: Duke the elegant, smooth composer with grand ambitions and ego; Count the wide-smiling but private Buddha who swung with Sinatra; and Louis the all-around entertainer with stage mugging, foghorn voice, multi-media reach and the most famous worldwide of all.
In the ‘30s and ‘40s, fans followed big bands the same way others would sports teams—the former not immune to trading players and stealing secrets. Sometimes, a colorfully named “sideman” like Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams, Zutty Singleton, or Sweets Edison would have proponents and detractors just as much as their bosses.

When U.S. soldiers—and especially Black troops—were traveling through Paris after liberating the city during World War II, crowds of Parisians would line up, wave their Armstrong albums, and shout his name as a way of paying tribute to both his music and the idea it came from America.

And when Armstrong met Pope Pius XIII at the jazz-loving pontiff’s invitation, even God’s Representative on Earth cracked a smile after asking Louis and his wife Lucille if they had any children. “No,” Armstrong replied, “But we’re having a lot of fun trying!

But the most harrowing pages have to do with the jaw-dropping racism all three men (and any Black performer) were subjected to while on the road, and especially in the South. Despite having one of the most recognizable faces in the U.S., Armstrong was turned away from using the restroom in a restaurant because they didn’t want “ni——s” there.
Ellington (who called racism the “skin disease”) and his orchestra were once forced to bunk up one night in a seedy Virginia motel that usually didn’t host Blacks when other preparations fell through. The proprietor told the group he’d have to charge them extra for the sheets and pillowcases. When asked why, he responded bluntly: Because he’d have to burn them, of course.

And Basie was once standing outside the Academy of Music in Philadelphia after performing a concert in which he’d received ten standing ovations, when a white man tossed him his car keys, assuming he was a valet.

Basie, wryly, simply replied “Get your own car, buddy. I’m tired, I’ve been parking them all night!”

Still, Nye details many of the breakthroughs they made—often quietly—for both their race and their music. Even while they aged and were viewed by some as old-fashioned and amidst the frequent criticism that Armstrong was “Uncle Tomming” his overexaggerated performances.

Though it was Armstrong who spoke most forcefully on school integration and the Little Rock Nine students, emitting a famous (and famously shocking) tirade against Alabama governor Orval Faubus and President that included the words “go to hell.”
Nye doesn’t shy away from the trio’s less than savory adventures into adultery, misogyny, gambling, drug and alcohol use, and the occasional pilfering of musical ideas and writing from their band members.

He also pinpoints their particular biggest addictions: Women and clothes (Duke), booze and gambling (Count) and marijuana and…laxatives (Louis). Yes, laxatives. Armstrong was a one-man proselytizer for one called Swiss Kriss, which he often handed out to anyone he encountered like candy.

Nye’s detailed research both with archival sources and original interviews reveal a treasure trove of details. Like the many superstitions of Ellington, who hated the colors green (because it reminded him of the grass around tombstones, and thus death) and brown (the color suit he was wearing when his beloved mother died). He also hated losing so much that when he bet on a horse race, he’d place money on every four-legged competitor.

While the pages might be a bit detailed and granular at times for the average fan, Nye has done a superlative job in The Jazz Men in the comparisons and contrasts of the three men who riveted jazz fans and whose work continues to thrill and inspire today.

And all three served as literal brand ambassadors for the United States bringing their music (often under official government capacities) to rabid audiences around the world. Even when they were treated better on a different continent then in their own hometowns.