It’s hard to underestimate the impact that iconic composer, pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington had on the development of jazz to where it is today.
Unsurprisingly, he’s a popular subject amongst jazz biographers and, in this article, we’ve highlighted six of the best books about Duke Ellington.
A multi-faceted musician, the various booked about Duke Ellington have the luxury of various different elements of his life and music career to focus on.
A sensitive pianist, a canny bandleader and, of course, one of the best jazz composers in history.
So let’s take a closer look at those covering the life and times of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.
Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington
The first text on this list was written by Terry Teachout. In this biography, Teachout explores the life of Duke Ellington.
Follow Teachout as he examines Ellington’s life, starting when he dropped out of high school. Ellington’s life is tracked from this point until he became a successful jazz musician.
In the book, Teachout presents the narrative of both Ellington’s public and private life. The personality and life of Ellington are analyzed in unflinching detail. As a result, Teachout moves beyond Ellington’s famous music career.
“Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington” was praised by critics for good reason.
As critic for The Wall Street Journal and author of a biography on Louis Armstrong – one of Ellington’s contemporaries – Teachout is more than up to the task of chronicling the pianist’s incredible life.
At 496 pages it’s not short, but it’s packed full of insight to keep your attention throughout and is well-worth a read.
Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra
This thought-provoking children’s book is authored by Andrea Davis Pinkney who tells the tale of Ellington’s life and career as a jazz composer and pianist.
Whilst it’s aimed at younger readers, it’s still a nice read for adults, especially those looking for a brief yet informative glimpse into his life.
As you can tell from the cover, it’s packed full of beautiful illustrations which were atually put together by Pinkney’s husband, Brian Pinkney, and help this book stand out from its other more wordy alternatives.
As some background, Pinkney has written extensively on topics around African-American culture, providing an essential voice that earned her the Coretta Scott King Award in 2013.
This award aims to celebrate authors who have written about the African-American experience.
Who Was Duke Ellington?
Another educational book suitable for both kids and adults, this book is from a line of texts that examine various figures throughout history and culture. Penguin’s Who HQ line has over 250 titles, each exploring a different person.
These texts are well-trusted, used by children and educators alike. Like the previous example, it is suitable for both young and mature readers.
The book is easy to read and at only 112 pages, it will give you plenty of insight within a relatively short word count.
The book explores Ellington’s 50-year career while getting to the heart of the jazz composer.
Beyond Category: The Life And Genius Of Duke Ellington
Whilst the term ‘genius’ is probably thrown around more than it should be these days, we’d have to agree with author John Edward Hasse in this case!
One of the elements that set this book apart from its competitors is that it uses the archives from the Smithsonian Institution. As a result, it is able to offer insight that is rarely seen in print. As a biography, this book relates the story of Ellington’s entire life.
Hasse analyses Ellington’s significance and his depiction of the African-American experience.
He also looks at those who collaborated with Ellington, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Strayhorn.
Hasse is well versed in the field of American music and history, making him the perfect guide to the legendary jazz musician.
American Legends: The Life of Duke Ellington
First published in 2015, American Legends: The Life of Duke Ellington is yet another engrossing biography about the man behind the music.
Aside from some facts and stories we hadn’t heard before, it also raises the question of what Ellington could have become had he not pursued a career in jazz music, a question that is thought-provoking and unique.
You can buy this book either in Kindle form, paperback, or audiobook.
The World of Duke Ellington
Our final suggestion is by Stanley Dance.
Written prior to Ellington’s death, Dance’s book aims to provide an understanding of Ellington’s world. If you are looking for more of a psychological dive into the musician’s life, this will be a great starting point.
After suffering from lung cancer, Ellington died on May 24th, 1974. Reportedly, the last words he said were “music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered.”
He was certainly correct in saying that he would be remembered for his music.
If you are fascinated by the life and career of this jazz legend there are plenty of books about Duke Ellington to check out. These six just scratch the surface but all of them are a great starting point for learning more about his life and work.
Looking to dive deeper into the compositions of Duke Ellington. Here are a handful of albums which pay tribute to the man himself…