As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Duke Ellington's birth on April 29, 1899, it seems only fitting that our celebration should focus on his most celebrated work, Black, Brown and Beige.
In the Duke Ellington Collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C., there is a 39-page typescript entitled "BOOLA." It is written in verse-narrative form and tells the story of an African named Boola who arrives in the New World on a slave ship. It tells the tale of his servitude, of his search for solace in the Bible, of his emancipation and eventual participation in the pageant of Black-American history. This narrative is the only evidence we have that Ellington was thinking of writing an opera on the history of African-Americans, a project he never completed. Boola did become the inspiration for his most important extended work, Black, Brown and Beige. The titles of some of the sections of Black, Brown and Beige can actually be found in the Boola narrative: "Come Sunday," "The West Indian Influence," "The Emancipation Celebration," and "The Blues."
Ellington began working on the music for Black, Brown and Beige late in 1942, just a year after his first musical, Jump for Joy, closed in Los Angeles. The premiere at New York's Carnegie Hall on January 23, 1943, was a huge success with the overflow audience, but it received a mixed reaction from the critics. Ellington was apparently discouraged by the bad press and, after the premiere, never again presented the work in its original complete form. However, from the first movement, Black, "Work Song" and "Come Sunday" survived; from the second movement, Brown, "West Indian Dance," "Emancipation Celebration," and "The Blues" all continued to be performed in various combinations. The third movement, Beige, was never performed or recorded again in its entirety.
Below are excerpts from the February, 1943 Metronome review of the concert:
Duke Kills Carnegie Cats! 'Tone Parallel,' Famed Soloists Slick, Click; Carnegie Kicked
Black, Brown and Beige, Duke's most ambitious work to date, caused the most talk among members of the audience and among musicians. . . . This so-called "tone parallel to the history of the American Negro," delved deeply into the resources of the Ellington personnel.... sustained its composer's ambitions amazingly, with its wealth of fine melody, its fresh, punchy writing for the brass and saxes and its unrelenting rhythmic drive. Whether or not the music told the story of the American Negro is open to conjecture . . . [the night before] a packed house at the Rye High School auditorium [heard] Duke and his outfit give a preview of the concert that was almost as thrilling as the performance the next night . . . Duke [credited] composers Mercer Ellington and Billy Strayhorn . . . Beneficiary of the concert was the Russian War Relief organization.
An editorial in the same Metronome commented on other reviews:
One thing keeps puzzling us. That is, why does the daily press permit writers to write on subjects they know nothing about then print those writings as authentic criticism? To us, that's just plain, journalistic dishonesty.
Did you read these choice bits by Douglas Watt in the News? "The concert, if that's what you'd call it . . ." What a snobbish, stupid, statement! Then - "Many of the merely curious straggled out during its performance." That statement is just not true. " Black, Brown and Beige...obviously isn't the sort of thing the audience came to hear." This remark, despite the fact that the piece had received reams of advance publicity and was the chief point of interest before, during and after the concert.
Paul Bowles, in the Herald Tribune, used this condescending opener: "Duke Ellington is the only jazz musician whose programs have enough musical interest to be judged by the same standards one applies to art music." Then, after Bowles attempted to criticize the concert in terms of his "art music," and stated that Duke's greatest achievement was to compose as he had without "losing the flavor, directness and dignity of early jazz" (which is just the kind of two-dimensional music Ellington is trying to get away from), Bowles wrote, "The whole attempt to fuse jazz as a form with art music should be discouraged."
There were other choice bits, such as the Journal American's " . . . the enthusiasm of the audience resulted in the addition of about a dozen extra numbers." Obviously Grune Bennett, under whose byline the statment appeared, hadn't even bothered attending the concert. Not a number was added. . . . Fortunately, of course, there were a few intelligent write-ups, such as those in PM, the Sun and the World-Telegram. But the majority of the critics wrote about the concert as though it were something way below their dignity. . . .
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The core personnel for the 1943 premiere was representative of the great band (some would argue the greatest band) that Ellington assembled in the early 1940s. Except for the departure of trumpeter Cootie Williams who headed for the Benny Goodman Sextet in 1940, the loss of Barney Bigard who wanted to front his own group in 1942, and the death of bassist Jimmy Blanton in 1942, the 1940 band was still intact.
Ellington's 1943 trumpet section had expanded permanently to four men, including open-horn soloist and lead-man Harold "Shorty" Baker who had joined Duke for the second time in 1942; lead-man and section player Wallace Jones who had been with Duke since 1937; veteran cornet soloist Rex Stewart who had been in the band since 1934; and cornetist/violinist Ray Nance who had replaced Cootie Williams and made his debut at the legendary Fargo, North Dakota, gig of November, 1940.
Rex Stewart and Harry Carney get dressed
By 1942, three of Ellington's five-member saxophone section had been together for ten years: Otto Hardwick, Johnny Hodges, and Harry Carney. Tenor saxophonist Ben Webster joined the band in 1939, and clarinetist Bigard was replaced by journeyman Chauncey Haughton in 1942. Lawrence Brown, Joe Nanton, and Juan Tizol ("God's Trombones") had been together since 1932. Although the loss of bassist Jimmy Blanton was a severe blow to the rhythm section and to the solo capabilities of the band, he was adequately replaced by Junior Raglin. Drummer Sonny Greer and guitarist Freddy Guy had been with Ellington since the 1920s in Washington, D.C.
Cracking a joke at rehearsal
The 1943 premiere performance was not recorded by RCA Victor, Ellington's recording company. Using the technology available at that time, a forty-five minute work would have required ten 10-inch discs or seven 12-inch discs; only classical music was commonly issued in such multi-disc albums. Fortunately, Carnegie Hall staff technicians made a private recording on 78 rpm acetate discs, bootleg copies of which circulated among collectors. Finally in 1977, Prestige brought out on LP the complete Carnegie Hall concert of January, 1943, which at last gave the public access to the music. Too many of Ellington's masterpieces have shared a similar fate. Let us hope there will be no such circumstances to report when we celebrate Ellington's bicentennial.
Richard Wang is the president of the Jazz Institute of Chicago, a professor of music at Univerity of Illinois Chicago Circle Campus, and a founding member of Chicago's Friends of Duke Ellington society. This article was originally published on the Jazz Institute of Chicago's website, www.jazzinstituteofchicago.org.