Picks and Pans Review: Beyond Category: the Life and Genius of Duke Ellington

updated 02/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

by John Edward Hasse

By now, most music critics agree that Duke Ellington is one of the 20th century's greatest composers in any musical idiom. But it wasn't always so.

In his Reader (Oxford University Press, $30), Ellington scholar Mark Tucker has produced a meticulously researched and annotated selection of revealing critical appraisals of Duke's music, including the first 1923 New York review of Ellington's Washingtonians as well as of pieces by the maestro.

Tucker's anthology delivers a genuine sense of Ellington's character—his courtly polish, his fierce devotion to his music and his ironically playful sense of humor as he jousts with press and public expectations. Moreover, this collection corrects a number of historical misconceptions. For example, it has long been said that American critics didn't take Ellington seriously until after his triumphant tour of Europe in 1933. Tucker, however, has found highly literate U.S. assessments of early Ellington predating that tour.

Another truism that gets put into better perspective here is the widely held notion that Ellington blundered, beginning around 1940, in attempting to write ambitious, extended pieces of music rather than continuing to limit himself to the three-minute songs that made his reputation—and income. Tucker also makes a convincing case that jazz, one of this country's great gifts to the world, is not a second-class artistic citizen, unworthy of the kind of attention "high" art routinely demands.

Tucker's Reader is both indispensable for anyone interested in Ellington and an important addition to the rapidly growing list of literature assessing the composer.

Unfortunately, Hasse's Beyond Category (Simon & Schuster, $25) is not. Although its author is curator of American music at the Smithsonian, where he had exclusive access to Ellington's archives, this book is a workmanlike rehash of its subject's life with surprisingly few new twists. Hasse's almost fanzine approach keeps him from making any meaningful distinctions about the unarguable strengths of Ellington's vast, but inevitably uneven, body of work.

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