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Burrell, TLS and NY Times weigh in on “Ellington’s America”

Posted by lostincci on June 24, 2010

More reviews are filtering in for CMCI Lecturer Harvey G. Cohen‘s new book Duke Ellington’s America (University of Chicago Press). Jazz guitar legend Kenny Burrell, who also serves as the Director for Jazz Studies at UCLA, will assign the book in his classes during the forthcoming school year. He had this to say:

“Harvey G. Cohen’s extensive research and creative scholarship has helped to bring us much closer to an understanding and appreciation of Ellington’s life, his thinking, his passion and his overall mission. The book also reveals how Ellington was able to deal with a multitude of problems through the years and still remain productive…This fine book is a welcome addition to the ongoing study of Ellington, the man and musician. Highly recommended.”

Speaking of jazz legends, Wynton Marsalis, in London last week for a residency at the Barbican, also waxed enthusiastic about Duke Ellington’s America at a party Dr. Cohen attended.

Duke Ellington’s America was featured as the cover story in last week’s issue of the Times Literary Supplement in a lengthy review written by scholar/journalist/composer David Schiff. It is not available online, but here is an excerpt:

“Taking full advantage of [the Smithsonian Institution’s] Ellington Archive, Harvey G. Cohen’s new book illuminates Ellington’s career as never before, and also helps to deepen our understanding of larger trends and issues in American politics and culture. No previous book on Ellington has followed the money so rigorously, laying bare the interworkings of art and capital. Neither biography nor musical analysis, Duke Ellington’s America is a social history of Ellington’s career, a double portrait of musician and society that situates the music within three large issues: the struggle for African American civil rights, the growth of the popular music industry, and the emergence of the United States as a global power whose most effective cultural weapon was African American music. If Cohen has an overarching thesis, it may be that Ellington’s personality and talents uniquely thrived in all three of these areas, despite the constant threats of appropriation, exploitation and even physical violence that hobbled or curtailed the careers of many of his contemporaries. Although Cohen’s historical approach is not theory-driven, he skillfully lays out the cultural contradictions of Ellington’s America in the ongoing clash between the tenacious structures of racism and the rapidly evolving music business, a paper empire erected on parallel pillars of copyright and organized crime…Many older books about Ellington portrayed his later career as a decline and fall from the glories of the Ben Webster/Jimmie Blanton band of 1940 and 1941, and missed the story, which Cohen tells very well, of a rejuvenated creativity equal to Stravinsky’s or Picasso’s.”

Also, two weeks ago, the New York Times reviewed Duke Ellington’s America as part of their Sunday Book Review section’s annual Summer Reading issue:

“The idea of a substantial book about a major musical figure that pays relatively little attention to his music might seem counterintuitive — or, to put it less politely, pointless. That ‘Duke Ellington’s America’ succeeds as well as it does is a tribute both to its author and to its subject. Arguing that Duke Ellington’s ‘significance went far beyond the musical realm,’ Harvey G. Cohen, a cultural historian who teaches at King’s College London, places Ellington’s life as a public figure and ‘culture hero’ in a larger social and political context. […]

There are not many artists whose lives can bear the weight of such a non-art-oriented treatment. Ellington, who for much of his career was not just a musician but also a symbol — of jazz as high art, of America as a land of opportunity — is one of them, and the story of his place in the world turns out to be well worth telling…Cohen’s in-depth examination of Ellington and civil rights is especially fascinating.”

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