Home News Duke Ellington and the African American discography revolution – Daniele Cassandro

Duke Ellington and the African American discography revolution – Daniele Cassandro

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This section deals exclusively with albums. But this time we make an exception for a very simple reason: when the music we are talking about came out, the albums, or the long playing thirty-three laps, they didn’t exist yet.

On May 26, 1935, Edward “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974), the greatest composer in jazz history, heard that his mother Daisy, to whom he was very attached, had died. Ellington was on tour, one of those endless tours of long train rides up and down the United States. He was already very famous and had a car of his own, far from the rest of his orchestra. During one of those journeys, annihilated by grief, he began to compose his funeral elegy for Daisy: Reminiscing in tempo, a four-part orchestral suite, lasting nearly thirteen minutes, which was released on the four sides of two 78 rpm records.

The discs of that time were designed to contain, on one side, a piece of up to four minutes. It was the perfect format for what US audiences called “black music”, or “jungle music”, the swing of the great orchestras of legendary clubs like the Cotton Club in Harlem. The pieces were short, very upbeat and syncopated, and the swing 78s were bought just for dancing. The audience of the swing clubs, especially those who bought records, was essentially white and from “black music” they expected rhythm, improvisation and a bit of that wild sensuality that so much liked to attribute to black musicians. The discography tried to please them by invading the 78 rpm market with swing pieces that were often associated with dances such as balboa, shag and charleston, all forerunners of the boogie-woogie of the forties. Brunswick, the record company that released the two 78s that contained the four parts of Reminiscing in tempoNot knowing how to define Ellington’s new music, he deceptively wrote “fox-trot” on the label, associating the famous name of Duke Ellington with the name of an equally famous dance. Too bad the music on those records was anything but a fox trot.

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Reminiscing in tempo it is a long single composition, divided into four parts essentially due to the limitations imposed by the 78 rpm format. The music is all written and the piece has nothing improvised: the orchestra follows the score exactly, as if playing a piece of classical music. There is no swing, there is no dance, there is no jungle: there is the eulogy of a son who decides to let the music speak to celebrate the memory of a beloved mother. And above all there is the awareness of a great artist who decides to do his own way, even betraying the expectations of the public and his managers. Reminiscing in tempo it is one of the first moments in which African American music proves to be an irresistible flywheel of innovation and change. Duke Ellington, in just over 12 minutes, transcends the stylistic, technological and racial limits that trapped his art: he composes his music without leaving the soloists room for improvisation, overflows from the format of the three-minute swing song and presents itself not more like the conductor of a large dance orchestra but as a composer in the broadest and “white” sense of the term.

“A detailed description of my loneliness after the loss of my mother” is how Duke Ellington describes Reminiscing in tempo in his autobiography, Music is my mistress. “Every page of that score was littered with the smears of my tears. I was sitting there staring into space, stamping my foot and saying to myself, ‘Edward, she doesn’t want to see you fall apart, fall back into the past, into your loss and destruction. She didn’t spend the first part of your life preparing you for all this negativity. ‘”

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Listening to the music, one has the sensation of the progress of the train on which he was traveling, from one end of the United States to the other, trying to make sense of the pain and above all one feels its physical distance (he wrote alone in his private carriage ) and also psychological by the musicians of his orchestra, whose solos here are used only to create contrasts of color and tone. In Reminiscing in tempo the swing orchestra ceases to be a collection of soloists pawing for their moment, but becomes the channel through which Duke Ellington and only Duke Ellington express their emotions. “Swing is business, jazz is music”, Duke Ellington always said, “Swing is business, jazz is music”. And this 1935 composition in honor of his mother Daisy was the first moment he understood it and put it into practice.

Duke Ellington and his orchestra
Reminiscing in tempo
Brunswick, 1935


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