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Acclaimed author Larry Tye digs deep in 'The JazzMen: How Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie Transformed America'

Larry Tye's new joint biography
HarperCollins/Larry Tye
Larry Tye's new joint biography

Larry Tye is a New York Times bestselling author and former reporter at the Boston Globe who now writes books for HarperCollins. His latest book is The Jazzmen: How Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie Transformed America.

The joint biography looks mainly at those maestros' lives off their bandstands, and how they helped kickstart the civil rights revolution.

Tye spoke recently to WBGO News Director Doug Doyle about why he wanted to write about three iconic jazz musicians in the same book.

"Years ago I wrote a book about the Black men who worked on the railroad who were known as Pullman porters. They were an extraordinary collection of guys who from the end of the Civil War (most of them were ex-slaves) to the 1960's made traveling by train and Pullman sleeper car the best way to get across America. They told that when I got done writing about them I had to write another book about their three all-time favorite passengers, guys named "Duke", "Count" and Satchmo." They were there favorites for reasons that intrigued me and that I could never get out of my head. Even though there were some of the best know musicians in the world, when they traveled below the Mason-Dixon line into a Jim Crow-segregated America, if they pick the wrong place to go after a concert, or the wrong hotel to book, it could get them beat up or could lead to them being lynched. So they would hire private Pullman sleeping cars to take them down South."

Author Larry Tye
Larry Tye
Author Larry Tye

Larry Tye says the personalities of Ellington, Basie and Armstrong were quite different.

"Louis Armstrong was over the top genuine and he appealed to our nostalgia. Duke Ellington by contrast was moody and aristocratic and he was looking to the future with his extraordinary-defining music and William Basie from Red Bank had a temperament that was heartfelt, compared to Armstrong who was looking to the past, Ellington to the future, William Basie was smack dab in the moment."

Tye admits one of the points he makes in the book is that these jazz giants were not Saints, stressing they all had their devices to escape the stresses of being on the road and making music during Jim Crow.

"I'm amazed the lived as long as they did, not just that their careers lasted a half-century but they lived into their 70's and beyond. At that time, that was considered quite old. For guys who were as rough on their bodies as they were, that was extraordinary.

You can SEE Doug Doyle's entire conversation with Larry Tye here.

Doug Doyle has been News Director at WBGO since 1998 and has taken his department to new heights in coverage and recognition. Doug and his staff have received more than 250 awards from organizations like PRNDI (now PMJA), AP, New York Association of Black Journalists, Garden State Association of Black Journalists and the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists.