There are probably more books on Duke Ellington – his life, career, music and band – than on any other jazz artist. It reflects the world-wide interest in Ellington in different groups – critics, researchers, fans etc. Some of the books are very, very good and others are mediocre and without interest.

Sometimes I am asked what a beginner on Ellington should read and I am sure that others in the Ellington community get the same question.

Some months ago I decided to poll Ellington experts on the Duke-LYM mailing list on the matter and many gave their view. In the end, it was a long thread with many suggestions.

Almost 15 books were proposed but many by only one person. But there was a strong consensus that a beginner on Ellington should start by reading Beyond Categories – The Life and Genius Duke Ellington by John Edward Hasse and then continue with Stanley Dance’s The World of Duke Ellington.

Beyond category

When it came to the third book, the views were more divided. Some proposed The Duke Ellington Reader by Mark Tucker and others his book The Early Years of Duke Ellington.

Single votes were given to Ellington’ autobiography Music Is My Mistress, Harvey Cohen’s Duke Ellington’s America, Gunther Schuller’s The Swing Years and others.

At this stage, the eminent and very considerate Ellington scholar, Roger Boyes (of DESUK) entered the discussion and turned it a little bit upside down.

He very forcefully argued that David Bradbury’s Duke Ellington ( Haus Publishing’s Life And Times series, 2005) should be the first book a beginner on Ellington should read.


“It is a very short but very full survey of the life and career (of Ellington). It is also balanced, with none of the usual bias in biographies towards the first half of the story at the expense of the second. It is well researched, reliable and packed with essential detail for its small compass. It has pictures, so the beginner can put faces to some of the names…..And if the beginner chooses to go no further than this, (s)he moves on from the subject well informed.”

This triggered me to buy the book (it is available at a good price on the Internet) and I agree with Roger Boyes, this is THE book for a beginner.

After Bradbury, the curious reader should go on with Beyond Genius, argues Boyes.

“This simply puts flesh on the bones of Bradbury (400 pages as against 150 or so.  As with Bradbury, it is dependable and balanced, in scope and in judgment.”

The third book on Boyes’ list is The Duke Ellington Reader ed. Mark Tucker.

“It too covers the same chronological territory as the others, but at even greater length than Hasse. And again it does it without bias and without axes to grind.  Tucker is another reliable and trustworthy companion.”

I hope that the visitors to the DESS’ website will continue the discussion and make their views heard.

Leave a Reply