> Duke Pulled Punches In Autobiography, Stanley Dance Revealed
Sunday, February 12, 2006
Subject: Proposed article

Hi, David,
Perhaps you can add this revelatory article to ellingtonweb. Bill Hill, referred to in the article, was DESSC president in 1991; Jane Vollmer was Duke's secretary. Steven Lasker is the noted Ellington scholar-collector.

Stan Slome

Duke pulled punches in his autobiography,
confidante Stanley Dance revealed at Ellington '91

by Stanley Slome

The late Stanley Dance gave me a lot of help when I was writing my articles on Duke's extended works Harlem and The River.  So, when Darryl Agler asked me to write a piece for this issue, I recalled that I had recorded the Ellington biographer and confidante and what he had to say might make for interesting reading.

The occasion was Carter Harman's presentation of excerpts from the some 20 hours of interview tapes he had done with Duke at various places in 1956 and 1964.   That presentation was at the annual International Ellington Conference our chapter hosted in June 1991 at the then Atlas Pacifica Hotel. After Harman's presentation, Stanley Dance was discovered in the audience and asked to come up to add comments. I'm presenting a transcription of his main remarks.   I used a portable cassette recorder, working off the hotel's PA system.   But background is first necessary.

Carter Harman was music editor of Time Magazine from 1952 to 1957.   It was his cover story for Time on August 20, 1956, highlighting Duke's sensational appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, that is credited by many with rejuvenating Duke's career. Harman, as Bill Hill pointed out to me, was "recruited" for the conference by Steven Lasker.   It was also in 1956 Harman's book A Popular History of Music was published.  

Harman said the true value of Duke's interview tapes is that they capture Duke's tone of voice, inflections and dynamics that mere printed words don't reveal.   He told why he never wrote the Ellington book resulting from those tapes:

"The reason I never wrote the autobiography – helped him write his autobiography – was basically that I thought I was writing the `secret' Ellington and he had no such idea.   He wanted to write a book that was a print version of the public Duke Ellington and it took so long for him to get that idea across to me, I think he was treading lightly, that we went on for the whole year before it was clear and our last conversation, or really our only conversation about that, took place in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, after a concert there ( I had been living in Puerto Rico);   and we sat on his terrace outside of his suite, and he said, `No, once you've been in the spotlight, you never dare get out unless it's after midnight and you go into the bathroom, pull down the shade and turn off the light.'   And so what it means is that, in other words, those who become legends in their lifetime are ruled by the legend."

In the question-and-answer session that followed Harman's presentation, the focus became Duke's autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, whereupon a woman with a heavy New York accent who did not identify herself except to say she's a freelance writer (Bill Hill told me her name is Jane Vollmer and is active in E-mail) said she was "on the scene" when Duke signed the MIMM contract with Doubleday for the same amount of money that he needed to finance a studio recording.  

When she mentioned the name of Stanley Dance, someone in the audience called out that he was in the auditorium.   "Oh, is Stanley here?" she cried out and that led to his emerging and coming to the speaker's table, leading Chairman Steven Lasker to remark "Instant panel!"

The Transcript


The first thing I had wanted to say after Carter had finished was that I, on several occasions, asked Duke why he wasn't proceeding with Carter; and, finally, he said "because he wanted me to tell the truth."   Carter's given a logical explanation but to me Duke said that Carter wanted him to tell the truth.  So he had arrived at a public position where it would have been very damaging for any other artist in the field, for instance, if Duke truly said what he thought about them.  And, although that is something that we would all like to know  -  what Duke truly thought of his competitors, et cetera, the only thing I know about is that he had me prepare some lists of musicians in different areas and we'd go through them and he'd say "We don't have to have him, do we?"   I said, "No, " and when we came to write Music Is My Mistress  -  despite an inference at last year's Conference that I wrote it  -   he wrote it on, I think it's been said, on hotel stationery, napkins, toilet rolls - and all sorts of things   -   and what I had to do:  I learned to read his handwriting better than he could read it himself; and I had to sort of get it typed up, and then he would go through it and correct it.  

There was very little typing done in that book at all; and as  -   I think Carter was quite right in emphasizing the fact that Duke's speech, manner of speaking, tone of voice  -  was so important that you can't really capture that in print.   Nobody could say the word jazz with more contempt and scorn than Duke did, as you heard.

Now, going back to telling the truth in Music Is My Mistress :  I think Duke told the truth but when we first got the finished copies, he looked at it - and he was well content with the fatness of it - and he said, "Well, now we've got the good book; now we'll write the bad book."

Well, of course, he had no intention of doing that, but Music Is My Mistress doesn't really say any old word of anyone and so some people   -   many people with evil minds will regret that, but there is one thing what I would say about that:  some of the people that were left out or underemphasized  -  that was done deliberately and you couldn't draw certain evaluations from that, I think, but my part in that was really quite accidental.

We were at the Rainbow Grill and the Reverend Weicker, the brother of the senator or congressman from Connecticut (ed. note: Senator Lowell Weicker (R-Ct.)) was there, and he had brought Mr. (Nelson) Doubleday, and Doubleday said to Duke, "Well, when are we going to have your autobiography?"

And Duke said, "Well, what's it worth, Mr. Doubleday?"

He said, "Fifty thousand," which at that time was quite a group of cash, you see; I was there and Duke said, "And that's conditional on Stanley having five thousand to write it with me."

"And that's" (Dance laughs) "how it came about."


1. Anticipating the question as to why I haven't used the Ellington excerpts Harman played, I can only say this:   Harman recorded under poor conditions-in automobiles, motel rooms, etc., to begin with.   I recorded from a PA system.   Result:  much of what Duke said is unintelligible.

2. Harman was non-commital as to whether he would write a book based on his tapes but did leave open the possibility that others could use the tapes.   In 1991 audio books were not the big sellers they are nor were CDs for spoken word purposes, possibly for technological reasons.   Perhaps the tapes could be digitally remastered and issued on audio cassettes or, better yet, on CDs.   There is a good precedent.   The book The Glory of the Game, consisting of interviews over the years with now long dead old-time major league baseball players , is now available on CDs.   We can now hear their actual voices. It is a big seller among members of SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research.  Would the unbuttoned Ellington revealed on the Harman tapes sell well on CDs or cassettes? It would be nice to know.