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Reminiscing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington by Stuart Nicholson

No one can say that the hundredth anniversary of Ellington’s birth has passed unnoticed. A lavish outpouring of tributes has marked the occasion, from concerts and recording projects to multi-part radio series, lectures, symposia, and conferences. Ellington even received a Pulitzer this year for his musical achievements-a belated gesture of conciliation after a committee in 1965 voted to deny him this prestigious award.

Stuart Nicholson’s Reminiscing in Tempo is yet another by-product of the centennial celebration. The volume compiles memories, anecdotes, and opinions from a large cast of characters: friends and relatives, band members, writers, business associates, and Ellington himself. Following the lead of Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff in Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya (1955) and Ira Gitler in Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s (1985), Nicholson has collected hundreds of quotes and brief excerpts from longer texts, grouped them chronologically, and supplied running commentary to create continuity in the narrative. Since earlier books on Ellington, in Nicholson’s view, allow “little of the compelling weave of complexities and contradictions of the inner man to surface,” he sought to assemble a group portrait of the maestro that “might have an authenticity [other studies] lacked.” But presenting multiple perspectives on Ellington is hardly new. Barry Ulanov used the technique throughout his 1946 biography, as did Stanley Dance in The World of Duke Ellington, the collection of interviews and reportage published in 1970. As for Nicholson’s bid for “authenticity” and his desire to uncover Ellington’s “complexities and contradictions,” these goals were met admirably in earlier memoirs by Rex Stewart, Barney Bigard, and Mercer Ellington, as well as in Duke’s own autobiography, Music Is My Mistress.

So what is truly new and different about Reminiscing in Tempo? For one thing, Nicholson reproduces fascinating excerpts from FBI files that detail Ellington’s alleged involvement with political groups or causes deemed suspicious by the agency. For another, he draws freely from a series of interviews conducted by Carter Harman (author of the 1956 Time cover story) that show a more candid, opinionated, and unbuttoned Ellington than the public ever knew existed. Readers may be startled to encounter Ellington’s casual, colloquial tone in speaking with Harman, so different from the polished and evasive utterances he usually gave journalists.

Beyond these sources and some interesting tidbits from unpublished interviews, though, much of the material in Reminiscing in Tempo will seem familiar to anyone acquainted with the Ellington literature. Nicholson reproduces many portions from the original manuscript for Music Is My Mistress (housed in the Archives Center of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History) that appeared only slightly altered in the original Doubleday edition of 1973. He draws liberally from the same 1940 magazine article used by Shapiro and Hentoff as the basis for their chapter on Ellington in Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya. In addition, a surprising number of anecdotes from previously unpublished interviews repeat stories already in print-as when Ellington relates how he and Strayhorn independently came up with the same musical line for the opening of the first Sacred Concert. In light of such recycling, Nicholson’s claim that in compiling his book he rarely resorted to “the standard Ellington reference works” and thus presents “a lot [that] is new to the published Ellington canon” cannot be taken at face value.

Reminiscing in Tempo does serve as a reminder of how challenging it is to chronicle a career as rich, prolific, and lengthy as Ellington’s. Appearing at the end of the first Ellington century, it joins the ever-growing body of literature devoted to this protean creator whose music continues to inspire, amaze, and speak to the soul.

Originally Published