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It be true that Herman Mankiewicz wrote most of “Citizen Kane,” scene by scene and even shot by shot.What is certainly true is that nothing else that survives of Mankiewicz’s is remotely as good as “Citizen Kane.” That’s because he was writing “Citizen Kane” for Orson Welles.Yet a residue of disappointment clings to these pages: Ellington was an elegant man but not a very nice one, Teachout concludes, exploiting the musicians he gathered and held so close.
The individual players he employed weren’t up-to-date urban players but, often, less sophisticated New Orleans musicians, whose great gift was a distinctly human tone, often achieved with the use of homemade mutes and plungers.
They never suffered from the homogenized, driving tone of the white bands.
Dignity demanded that he never take off his dinner jacket, and then it became a straitjacket.
As Balliett pointed out, Ellington knew from the beginning that he needed a , more even than a beat or a style.
Ellington was a dance-band impresario who played no better than O. piano, got trapped for years playing “jungle music” in gangster night clubs, and at his height produced mostly tinny, brief recordings.
(His finest was made on a bitter winter night in 1940, in a Fargo, North Dakota, ballroom.) How did he become a dominant figure of modern music and, for many people, an exemplar of art?
Ellington, by contrast, was a slow starter and a slow learner, whose first hits now sound dated and chi-chi. C., domestics who passed on a high sense of style and a fastidious desire for elegance, he was a city man.
There was something self-constructed about him, as there had to be with so many African-American figures of the era—he was a Duke in the same way that Father Divine was divine.
Over the years, Ellington cultivated those kinds of players until, with the 1940 band, he achieved something extraordinary—an all-star band that played together, soloed luminously, and never sounded competitive.
As critics still remark in proper wonder, at least five of the musicians—Jimmy Blanton, on bass, Ben Webster, on tenor sax, Johnny Hodges, on alto sax, Harry Carney, on baritone sax, and Tricky Sam Nanton, on the trombone—are in the running for the very best ever to have picked up their instrument.