Music: Undefeated Champ

It was a typical jazzmen's drinking contest of the Prohibition era. Through the night, Cornetist Rex Stewart and Trombonist Joe Nanton matched half pints of gin with each other—and a referee. By 9 a.m., the only one left standing was the referee, who happened to be Bandleader Duke Ellington. Recalling the incident last year in his autobiography Music is my Mistress, Ellington wrote, "I don't drink booze any more. I retired undefeated champ about 30 years ago."

Booze was about the only thing the Duke ever retired from. He was an unceasing forward mover in a career that spanned two World Wars,...

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