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Reminiscing in Tempo - Notes

by Ken Steiner

Ellington had become an international celebrity by the time Daisy had been diagnosed with cancer.  The devoted son arranged treatment by a specialist in Detroit.   He limited his band’s relentless touring activity to that city’s environs so he could spend his days with her while leading his band at night.  After eight weeks in the hospital, Daisy Kennedy Ellington passed on May 26, 1935, at the age of 56.  Ellington, along with his father, sister, and son, accompanied her casket on the train to Washington, D.C. where she was buried.


“I didn’t do anything but brood,” recalled Duke.  “The music is representative of that.  It begins with pleasant thoughts.  Then something awful gets you down.  Then you snap out of it, and it ends affirmatively.”


Daisy Ellington

Duke Ellington’s “world had been built around his mother, and the days after her death were the saddest and most morbid of his life,’ recalled Ellington’s son, Mercer.  “He just sat around and wept for days.  The first sign that he was coming out of despair was Reminiscing in Tempo.”  Duke later told a story of writing it aboard a train during a July 1935 tour of one-nighters.   “I found the mental isolation to reflect on the past.  I was caught up in the rhythm and motion of a train dashing through the South.”


“The piece was a breakthrough for him - at thirteen minutes, his longest composition to date and one that integrated the various themes into a whole,” according to John Hasse, Ellington biographer and Curator Emeritus of American Music at the Smithsonian Institution.   Hasse points out that Reminiscing in Tempo offers composed solos.  Arthur Whetsel’s muted trumpet was assigned the plaintive opening theme.    Other instrumentalists featured were Juan Tizol (trombone), Harry Carney (baritone sax), Barney Bigard (clarinet), Duke himself (piano), and Rex Stewart (cornet), who reprises the theme first stated by Whetsel.    The real star, though, is the orchestra, which created a mix of sound and color that no other band could play.  Reminiscing in Tempo, recorded for Brunswick on September 12, 1935, ran the length of both sides of two 78-rpm records. 

Reminiscing in Tempo “is built from a small collection of motives, each subject to slight variation, truncation, and/or extension,” according to John Howland, author of Ellington Uptown:  Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and the Birth of Symphonic Jazz.  Howland’s study of the manuscripts revealed that Part IV was written in different ink, suggesting that it was written separately, possibly as a later addition to fill out the second side of the second record.


Ellington’s homage to his mother received a mixed reception.  Critic/Promotor John Hammond called it and “rambling” and “pretentious” and accused Ellington of betraying jazz.   Few live performances from the 1930s are known.  Although labeled a “Fox Trot” on the Brunswick 78 rpm records, the piece was not well-suited for the dance halls, night clubs, or vaudeville theaters where Ellington plied his trade.    Jazz concerts were just coming into existence.  Reminiscing in Tempo was on the program for Ellington’s first US concert at UCLA in 1937, and again at CCNY in 1939.  Although not often performed, for Duke, “hearing it constituted my total reward.”    When pressed in a 1952 Down Beat retrospective, Ellington named Reminiscing in Tempo as one of his eleven favorite compositions.


Duke Ellington

Duke revived Reminiscing in Tempo in 1945 for one of his “Treasury Shows,” a series of hour-long nationwide broadcasts.  With the knowledge that the Saturday shows would be recorded, Duke took the opportunity to document some of his greatest works.  It was also included on a 1948 “concert tour” that included stops at Carnegie Hall and Cornell University where recordings were made.   When revisiting his compositions, it was Duke’s custom to edit.   The 1940s performances of Reminiscing were shortened to the first three sections.  John Howland has suggested this as another indication of Ellington’s original intent.


SRJO conductor, co-founder, and reed player Michael Brockman is most pleased to bring Reminiscing in Tempo to life.   He has admired and studied Ellington’s opus for years; it covered about one-third of his doctoral dissertation on Ellington’s compositional techniques.    Dr. Brockman knows Reminiscing from the inside, having done the laborious work of transcription. Like Ellington, Brockman’s reward is that he gets to “hear it.”   And it’s our reward, too – a rare chance to hear this tone parallel to grief, memory, and affirmation of life.

Ken Steiner is a jazz historian specializing in Duke Ellington and serves as an SRJO board member. 


Seattle Times: Clarence Acox, a giant of Northwest jazz, leaves a lasting legacy at Garfield High School as he retires

August 2, 2019

Clarence Acox, the 71-year-old nationally acclaimed jazz band director, led Garfield High School's jazz bands to the pinnacle of high school jazz competitions and played a huge role in putting Seattle jazz education on the map.

Seattle Times: Ignacio Berroa, formerly Dizzy Gillespie’s go-to drummer, swings into Seattle

April 11, 2019

The Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra (SRJO) plays three concerts this weekend with the incomparable Cuban drummer Ignacio Berroa, part of a banner season that has included a Golden Ear Award from the local organization Earshot Jazz and a gala that raised a record $90,000.

Seattle Times review: Anat Cohen brings reed genius to Seattle big band

February 23, 2015

"The Israeli clarinetist/saxophonist nailed one solo after another in a highlight-packed Sunday show in Kirkland." By Paul de Barros 

Seattle Times: Anat Cohen, Pharaoh Sanders, Christian McBride: a jazz convergence

February 19, 2015

"Three exceptionally strong jazz acts hit Seattle this week — clarinetist/saxophonist Anat Cohen, performing with the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra (SRJO); veteran saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, with an all-star band that includes drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, guitarist Stanley Jordan and bassist Charnett Moffett; and bassist Christian McBride’s trio.


Cohen, who hails originally from Israel, has in the last few years become, hands down, the ascendant clarinetist in jazz.


Not just her beautiful, soulful sound but her architectural sense of a solo and exuberant sense of rhythm make her one of the most absorbing players — on any instrument — in the music today.


“She’s just at the top of the heap these days,” agrees SRJO co-director Michael Brockman. “She’s such a fiery, spirited player. She’s clearly a composer on the clarinet.”

Artfully Edmonds review: Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra lights up ECA — will they be back?

January 24, 2015

At ECA last night the renowned orchestra had a shot at capturing the hearts of Edmonds jazz lovers with its performance of “Quincy Jones and Ray Charles on Jackson Street.”

Seattle Times, Misha Berson

October 31, 2013

Seattle Shakespeare Company’s new production of “Much Ado About Nothing” ... tang[s] it up with comic antics and original cocktail jazz excellently supplied by the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra (SRJO)....the cool sounds supplied by composer Michael Brockman and the SRJO happily kick off a continuing collaboration with Seattle Shakes. The deliriously joyful music and dance number at the end of this production leave you wanting more where that came from. 

Seattle Times, Paul DeBarros, August 31, 2012

"This ebullient all-star big band covers the jazz waterfront, from Jelly Roll Morton to Thelonious Monk."

The Stranger, August 29, 2012

"I can honestly say that I would think less of Seattle if it did not have a real-deal jazz orchestra. Any old city can have a symphony or opera. What's more impressive, and what you can't argue with, is a city that has the resources to support a company that performs jazz with a big and classical sound. The tradition consolidated by the great American Duke Ellington is preserved by the institution called Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra." 

Seattle Weekly, August 29, 2012

"Some of the best music ever made...The jazz of the 1930s and '40s was perhaps the finest American musical accomplishment, and might actually be the highest form of ensemble music in human history. Big band music cannot be properly experienced on record." 

Trumpeter cooly carries Miles reprisal, Seattle Times, March 20, 2000

by Paul de Barros, Seattle Times Jazz Critic

Is there any value to reprising great works of the jazz repertory, when recordings by the masters are so easily available?


It's a nagging question that won't go away. But Saturday night at Benaroya Hall, in a triumphant rendering of the music of Miles Davis' "Birth of the Cool" period, the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra answered it with a resounding - but, of course, cool - "yes."


The 5-year-old ensemble also suggested, through its strengths and weaknesses, some factors that contribute to repertory success.

Putting aside for a moment all issues of blend, attack, feeling or tempos, this night, quite simply, belonged to trumpeter Jay Thomas. From his opening solo on Gerry Mulligan's "Rocker," on which he gave the last chorus just the right ride, to his smooth, golden-toned, Miles-quoting solo on Dave Brubeck's "The Duke," Thomas played with a breathtaking combination of lightness and logic, restraint and momentum that virtually defined "cool jazz."

Baritone saxophonist Bill Ramsay and tenor saxophonist Dan Greenblatt helped bring home the point that invigorating, original soloists - and not slavishly imitative ones - are what make jazz repertory worth the effort.


That said, the ensemble as a whole was immaculately prepared. Miles' "cool" music, arranged in collaboration with the great Gil Evans for nine-piece chamber group, requires great delicacy and precision, without which it sounds incomplete, or downright peculiar.


On "Rocker," "Jeru," and "Venus de Milo" the orchestra captured this balance in spades, playing with an elan that made the music its own, and not a wooden recital.


"Moon Dreams," Evans' lush tone poem (and blueprint for the muted-brass, film-music style of Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones), was particularly impressive.


Ramsay and tuba player Dan Marcus rendered the unusual baritone sax and tuba lead on "Godchild" with aplomb, though the ensemble balance was a trifle rugged. Ditto for "Boplicity," where the tempo dragged, and some stiffness crept in.


Seattle's jazz granddaddy, trumpeter Floyd Standifer, who came up in the cool/hard bop era, didn't have a great night, though his chuffing tone and sweet turns of phrase on the beautiful "My Ship" were effective.

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