To His Own Beat
by Rebecca Bodenheimer
In 1935 Duke Ellington composed Reminiscing in Tempo. The piece was a departure for the great jazz composer. Reminiscing in Tempo (RIT) didn’t sound like Ellington’s popular songs. It was long, clocking in at over twelve minutes. It didn’t swing. It was experimental. It wasn’t something the white audience at the Cotton Club expected from a Black composer.
RIT posed a creative risk for Ellington. The work was personal. Ellington wrote RIT in response to the death of his mother. In A Beat of His Own musicologist Rebecca Bodenheimer explains how this composition challenged Ellington’s creative reputation. She writes, “Nothing of this scope or length had been attempted in jazz before or by a jazz orchestra. It was particularly surprising to jazz aficionados because Ellington’s orchestra was a dance band; and yet, he wrote this longform piece specifically for his musicians.”
RIT led the way out of the “jungle music” Ellington was known for and into longer symphonic compositions. Again, Bodenheimer: “In fact, Ellington’s creative deviation was labeled a failure by many critics of the time. The fact that it sparked controversial opinions speaks to the racial politics of music-making in the U.S.—particularly the expectations of what “Black music” should and could sound like, particularly in the 1930s.”
Rebecca Bodenheimer is an Oakland-based freelance writer and cultural critic with a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. Her writing has been featured in CNN Opinion, Vice, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Billboard, NPR Music, The Ringer, and many other outlets. Rebecca is also the author of Geographies of Cubanidad: Place, Race, and Musical Performance in Contemporary Cuba.