IN THE PRESS
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.”
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 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.