my hero

Can we hope that one of the few upsides to our continuing economic misery is staunching the flow of business advice books – with a prayer that titles like “Leadership Lessons From Bear Stearns” and “Relationships The Goldman Sachs Way” have permanently passed their sell by date?

I spent some time in the advice section over the years, looking for someone who operates the way I do in my little newsroom. My ideas don’t seem all that outlandish to me (well, most of them), but it would be nice to find a fellow traveler.

I never found what I was looking for, but I have found a way to describe what I want. The book I imagine is called “Running Things” and it’s written by…

Duke Ellington.

I have a short list of heroes which changes over time, but Ellington is always, always at the top. Starting when I was in my teens and heard Steely Dan cover “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” I fell deep into Ellington’s music, which has enriched and sustained me for decades.

Along the way, I fell in love with the way the man did his job; he embodies so many things I believe are right and good and smart.

That he did it in an offhand way can obscure his strengths as a leader. The new history Jazz (Giddins and DeVeaux) recounts his ability to slack:

Backstage, a more relaxed Ellington was so relaxed and at ease that band members nicknamed him Dumpy. His lassitude in the midst of the day-to-day hustle of running a dance band caused his road manager to complain, “This band has no boss.”

But of course it did. Ellington drew to him an assortment of characters and stars, geniuses and journeymen. They fell in and out of his orbit, most often doing their best work with him, which Ellington accomplished by doing two things at once – holding stubbornly to his sense of ‘Ellington music,’ while catering to the individual styles of his very distinctive crew. His relationship with his band wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough.

He collaborated brilliantly, primarily with Strayhorn, but with others as well. Sometimes his ‘ideas’ really started with band members, who were none too pleased to hear a melody or riff show up in a copyrighted Ellington tune, but he would push, pull, transform those ideas, and he put those royalties to good use, funding the band out of his own pocket during lean times.

His head was in the sky, but his feet were on the ground. Ellington used the band as his personal laboratory, but he also kept it on the road most of the year, even when he was an old man. He did not forget that he had to pay for his play, nor that his fancy ideas needed testing out in the real world.

He took the form, the two or three minutes on a 78 rpm record, and shaped bright little jewels out of the time he had. (He also worked extensively with long forms, but his greatest achievement falls in the late 30s and early 40s, when gems like “Ko-Ko” and “Jack The Bear” tumbled out.)

He thought directly, like a poet. An example, (again the quote comes from Jazz):

It’s a primitive instinct, this dancing business. But it also signifies happiness, and I like to see happy people.

Could anything be more contrary to the way the world works today? Could anything be better?


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