Thursday, 15 December 2011

I Once Played Trumpet for Duke Ellington

1986 - Old Tommy drank in a pub in an East Belfast back-street. He only lived a couple of streets away so he could get drunk and still manage to find his way home. It was a daily routine he carried out as if he was occupying his time while waiting for God to bring him home. He was a wee man who 'never bothered anybody'. Tommy did his own thing, drifting through life on the soft cushion of repetition. Tommy’s life had a gentle uncomplicated rhythm. He was in his retirement years and wanted no fuss or bother.

Tommy was a friendly man who struck up conversations with many folk in the bar. He would tell tales from his past and each time he eventually he would get around to reciting a story of how he once played trumpet for music-legend Duke Ellington. ‘The Duke’ came to perform in Belfast one night during the 1940's and Tommy was recruited to play trumpet for him at the concert. This was Tommy's conversation centrepiece. "There are not many who can say they’ve played for The Duke!" he would tell anyone who was listening.

That musical night was his little slice of fame on which he rested as he slowly gave up playing a musical instrument. Working in the Shipyard and raising a family was not at all conducive with being involved in the Arts. I once asked Tommy why he quit playing trumpet. He told me that he got married at the age of twenty-one when " she found out she was pregnant.” You got a girl pregnant and you married her. That was the proper thing to do in the 1940's. Tommy became a young husband and father and "one thing led to another and I just stopped playing." His dream of being a musician was replaced by the cold reality that this was not to be.

After the struggles of young adulthood followed by the middle-age years, Tommy had finally found his own routine in life. He seemed happy with his wife, son, daughter ("the gentleman's family") and grandchildren. He had a small crowd of good mates waiting for him every day in the bar. What Tommy had didn’t amount to fame or fortune but it was enough.

After that night when he played music with Duke Ellington, Tommy spent the following forty years slowly sinking into alcohol-oblivion. This hazy world softened the inner secrets and the 'what could have been' thoughts that swirled around his head. With alcohol they disappeared. Tommy had reached the stage when the war was over; there was no more fighting; no more dreaming of a possible past. Heaven was now waiting for Tommy to be with the wee wife he lost a few years back - "God rest her soul..." he would say each time she spoke her name.

Tommy may not have fulfilled his dream of being a musician but he did actually play trumpet for ‘The Duke’. There really aren’t many who can say that.


  1. my dad was at the duke ellington performance in the 1940's! we found his signed memorabilia only a few weeks ago. while he worked in the ship yard also, he continued playing with a huge family too! love how i found this little parallel online!