Reminiscing In Tempo

2006, Movie, NR, 81 mins


Documentarian Gary Keys specializes in films about jazz musicians, and this follow-up to Memories of Duke returns to one of his favorite subjects: composer and band leader Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington. This film's scope is deliberately small. Since Ellington's death in 1974, his sister, Ruth Ellington Boatwright, has thrown a birthday party that brings together musicians, collaborators, friends and devotees for a night of food, reminiscing and impromptu performances. Keys captures their off-the-cuff recollections and intercuts them with archival clips of the Duke Ellington Orchestra (mostly from his 1968 tour of Mexico, which sometimes looks like glorified home-movie footage) and existing interviews, notably one with renowned pianist Dr. Billy Taylor while conducting a 2004 seminar at the Duke Ellington Society. The irony, as Boatwright herself admits, is that Ellington so disliked reminders of his age that he once tried to call off a birthday celebration at the White House. It was Boatwright who persuaded him that he had to go, so it's only fitting that Boatwright — a flamboyant figure in a Mae West wig and gigantic rhinestone-trimmed glasses — continues to fete her brother on the day he so disliked. The film captures some marvelous moments, including pianist Dr. Billy Taylor's anecdote about hearing longtime Ellington Orchestra member Ray Nance play "Take the 'A' Train" as a ballad at Billy Strayhorn's funeral, and never playing it as an up-tempo number again. But you could make a compelling argument that documenting once velvet-voiced vocalist Al Hibbler croaking through criminally ill-fitting dentures does him no favors. Keys touches on Ellington's life, including his concessions to racism — when he and his orchestra toured the segregated South, Ellington used Pullman cars so that they had someplace decent to sleep and eat — and his love of the ladies, as well as his late-life dedication to sacred music. But overall, this puff piece is shapeless, repetitive and feels much longer than it is. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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