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Encountering Gunther

Encountering Gunther: Reminiscing in Tempo

Gunther Schuller brings due attention Duke Ellington’s masterpiece Reminiscing in Tempo

This post explores two of my favorite artists – Gunther Schuller and Duke Ellington. After reading Gunther’s A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty, it is evident that he has a deep admiration for Duke’s incalculable contributions to jazz. I share Gunther’s infatuation with Ellington’s music, and have since I was a kid first discovering jazz.

While I cannot say I know every single piece Duke wrote, I am very familiar with quite a few. My personal interests tend to lie at the opposite ends of his career – the early three-minute recordings with the Washingtonians and Duke’s illustrious extended works toward the end of his life. The interesting thing is that these two “extremes” are actually rather connected. Duke’s early works were the foundation from which he grew. While the recordings of the pieces may have not exceeded three minutes, his live arrangements would. Additionally, even in this early period, Duke was pushing the boundaries of compositional form in the jazz idiom.

Duke Ellington’s first major extended piece on record is Creole Rhapsody (1931). With a duration of more than six minutes, the piece took two sides of a record, meaning the record needed to be flipped in the middle of the piece. This did not make an ideal listening experience and was a tough sell to record producers. In his memoir Music is My Mistress, Duke recalls the following:

“… I went out and wrote Creole Rhapsody, and I did so much music for it that we had to cut it up and do two versions. One came out on Brunswick and the other, longer one, on Victor. Irving [Mills] almost blew his connection at both companies for recording a number that was not only more than three minutes long, but took both side of the record.

Music is My Mistress, p. 82
Duke Ellington’s Creole Rhapsody (1931)

The next extended work of Ellington’s that I was aware of was Black, Brown And Beige (1943), which was premiered at his Carnegie Hall debut that year. It is another masterwork and showcases Duke’s expanding imagination.

Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown And Beige (1943) live at Carnegie Hall

For a composer as prolific as Duke Ellington, the 12 years between Creole Rhapsody and Black, Brown And Beige are universes apart. What was Duke writing in between?

Gunther pointed me toward the answer in his memoir. He mentioned a Duke Ellington piece I had never heard of before (a rarity) – Reminiscing in Tempo (1935). It was surprising to read about this groundbreaking piece that, after many years of being a devout Ellington fan and earning a degree in jazz composition, I never encountered before. Perhaps this is a testament to how vast Ellington’s compositional output was.

Duke Ellington composed Reminiscing in Tempo while he was on the road with his band. He was contemplating the untimely loss of his mother earlier that year.

Duke Ellington’s Reminiscing in Tempo

In the context of A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty, Gunther mentions Reminiscing in Tempo because he programmed the piece in his legendary 1957 Brandeis concert. He did this to recognize the piece as a “forerunner of extended compositions in jazz.” Reminiscing in Tempo was in good company on the concert; new works by Charles Mingus, George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, John Lewis, Milton Babbitt, and Gunther himself were premiered.

The Birth of the Third Stream (1957), recordings from part of the Brandeis Third Stream festival

Upon reading Gunther’s memoir, I took a listen to Reminiscing in Tempo. I was amazed by what I heard. At 13 minutes, it was substantially longer than Creole Rhapsody. More impressively, the development of the piece is so logical with a very natural flow. Even more astounding, Duke was able to convince his record label to release this piece, which took up four sides! Duke writes:

I reflected, and I wrote music, and it came out as Reminiscing in Tempo, which eventually ran to four record sides, two more than Creole Rhapsody. This meant that Irving Mills had twice as much trouble with the record companies, who threatened to throw us out of the catalog! That was unimportant to me, because I had written my statement. Hearing it constituted my total reward, and in it was a detailed account of my aloneness after losing my mother…”

Music is My Mistress, p. 86

Gunther dedicated a substantial amount of space in his seminal text The Swing Era (1989) to Reminiscing in Tempo. He eloquently explains what makes this piece so important. I have attempted to summarize his key points:

  1. Ellington is pushing against the current conventions of swing/dance music of his time. Reminiscing is intended for listening rather than dancing. The piece is lengthy and through-composed rather than having a short repeating form.
  2. Reminiscing solidified Ellingtons skill of writing to the strengths of his players. It is often said that Ellington’s true instrument was his band, rather than the piano. (Duke disagreed with this, based on his memoir Music is my Mistress. Perhaps a blog for another day?) He knew how to utilize each player’s unique timbre to achieve his sonic goals. For instance, he gives the lead alto part to Toby Hardwick or Johnny Hodges to achieve different sounds.
  3. Duke left no room for improvised solos. However, he did have fully composed solo written to showcase that specific players’ strengths.

Like many masterworks, Reminiscing in Tempo was not always received positively at the time of its creation. In his scathing Downbeat Magazine review, John Hammond scoffed at Reminiscing for its “pretentiousness” and claimed the piece was void of “true jazz spirit.” I would have never imagined words like that describing Duke Ellington’s work. I did not know if I should laugh or cry!

I am thankful that Gunther’s memoir brought this piece to my attention. I have enjoyed listening to it, learning about it, and now sharing this with others.


Sources

Ellington, Edward Kennedy. Music is My Mistress. Garden City, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973.

Schuller, Gunther. A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty. Rochester, University of Rochester Press, 2011.

Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era. New York, Oxford University Press, 1989.


Learn more about my Encountering Gunther blog series.

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