Duke Ellington's mother dies

The Guardian-9 years before

Reminiscing in Tempo, 12 minutes long, reflected the state of contemplative melancholy into which Ellington, then aged 36, had fallen following his bereavement. Given the technical limitations of the day, it had to be spread over all four sides of a pair of 10-inch 78rpm discs, and perhaps the inevitable discontinuity of the listening experience lay behind the mixed critical response it provoked in usually sympathetic quarters. With the benefit of subsequent developments, we can, of course, listen to it as a single unbroken piece and can therefore appreciate the subtle fluctuations of mo...d as it flows gently, and with a purposeful absence of rhetorical flourishes, through a sequence of carefully supported solos by Ellington's great soloists, including the trumpeter Rex Stewart, the trombonist Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton, the clarinetist Barney Bigard, the alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges and the baritone saxophonist Harry Carney.

Ellington was on the road, undertaking a series of one-nighters, when he heard the news of his mother's demise, and he stayed up all night in his Pullman car, "all caught up in the rhythm and motion of the train dashing through the south", to lay the foundations of his musical tribute. The interlude for Ellington's unaccompanied piano allows the composer to evoke the sensation of a mind gently slipping in and out of grief. With this piece, he articulated the extent of an ambition that ranged far beyond his reputation as the leader of a popular big band.

On his arrival in New York from Washington DC a dozen years earlier, the young Edward Kennedy Ellington – nicknamed "Duke" by a childhood friend – had begun collecting musicians; in 1927 they opened at Harlem's Cotton Club, playing to a white, high-society audience in a long engagement that became one of the landmarks of jazz history. Soon he was known as the composer of such distinctive pieces as Mood Indigo, Black and Tan Fantasy, East St Louis Toodle-oo, Creole Love Call, Sophisticated Lady and In a Sentimental Mood. He ventured on to Broadway with the band in Florenz Ziegfeld's Show Girl. They became a regular feature of Hollywood movies such as Check and Double Check, Belle of the Nineties and Murder at the Vanities (in 1937, Duke would provide music for the Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races). When they toured the south, the band avoided segregated accommodation while emphasising their status by travelling by rail in two Pullman cars with their name on the side, in which they slept at night. In 1933, they visited Europe, playing the London Palladium and the Trocadero, Elephant and Castle, as well as venues in Liverpool, Glasgow, Hastings, Harrogate and Blackpool.

At the Palladium, as one of 13 acts on the bill, they were restricted to a mere eight short numbers, with Mood Indigo as the encore. But Reminiscing in Tempo showed that Ellington was more than capable of stretching himself beyond the conventional three-minute form and creating jazz on a scale hitherto unimagined. The output of brilliant miniatures – Jack the Bear, Ko-Ko, A Portrait of Bert Williams, Prelude to a Kiss, Concerto for Cootie – continued as he entered the 1940s with perhaps the greatest line-up he ever assembled, and in 1941 his first full-length Broadway show, Jump for Joy, introduced Just Squeeze Me and I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good.

But soon the urge to compose in extended forms began to assert itself, first with Black, Brown and Beige, a symphony with which he inaugurated his annual series of Carnegie Hall concerts in 1941. It was followed by the Perfume Suite (1945), the Liberian Suite (1947), the Newport Jazz Festival Suite (1956), his resplendent exploration of themes from Shakespeare under the title Such Sweet Thunder (1957) and, in 1958, the Queen's Suite, dedicated to Elizabeth II, to whom he had been presented during an earlier visit and who promptly received what was, for many years, the only copy of the work in recorded form. Later, there would be the New Orleans Suite, Afro-Eurasian Eclipse, the Far East Suite, the Latin American Suite and the music for the sacred concerts to which he devoted a considerable amount of energy in the years before his death in 1974, at the age of 75.

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