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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.

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