Terry Teachout on Duke Ellington and Life’s Classroom

Lessons Learned - Music - Duke Ellington

Editor's Note: Terry Teachout is the author of Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, a definitive account of the master musician Duke Ellington. Duke took pride in paving his own paths, forgoing classical training and improvising as he went. Here, as part of Biographile's Lessons Learned monthmonth of authors sharing lessons learned while writing, Terry explains the risk Duke took in passing up on formal training but how, due to the jazz master's sheer genius, it paid off in the end. For some people, Teachout concludes, an "inner self" is the only compass one needs.

Duke Ellington didn’t think much of formal schooling -- for himself. He dropped out of high school in order to become a full-time jazzman. His training consisted of a half-dozen lessons in classical harmony, in the course of which he "discovered that F-sharp is not a G-flat. That was the end of my lessons…because I found out what I wanted to know." Throughout his life he preferred to learn by listening, then trying things for himself. Will Marion Cook, one of his mentors, later tried to persuade him to study the classics. "I don’t want to go to the conservatory because they’re not teaching what I want to learn," Ellington said. "You know you should go to the conservatory," Cook replied. "But since you won’t, I’ll tell you. First you find the logical way, and when you find it, avoid it, and let your inner self break through and guide you. Don’t try to be anybody but yourself."

Was Ellington wise to steer clear of the classroom? Certainly he would have profited from learning more about the rules of large-scale composition. He ran into difficulties when he tried to write larger, more ambitious pieces later in life, precisely because his unwillingness to learn from the classics forced him to fumble for wheel-inventing “solutions” to basic problems of musical architecture. On the other hand, Cook steered his young protégé straight when he told him to avoid obvious solutions and go his own way. From the very beginning of his long career, Ellington did things his way or not at all, and his iron determination never to be anybody but himself was the reason why all of his music, early and late, was so powerfully individual.

Some pieces of advice, of course, are only meant to be heeded by geniuses. Mere mortals can’t do without the guidance that formal training can give. But Duke Ellington was a genius, and he seems to have known by instinct that it simply wouldn’t have worked for him to follow any other path but the one dictated by his "inner self." By doing so, he became the greatest and most prolific jazz composer of the twentieth century. As lessons go, I’d say that was a pretty profitable one.

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