For this article, I chose Black, Brown, and Beige, and the critics' reactions to it, as a starting point from which to discuss Ellington's efforts to change negative perceptions about African Americans and the conditions under which they lived. The article examines how Ellington used jazz composition, the spoken and written word, the media, and his own celebrity to transform attitudes about race in this country.
Before writing Black, Brown, and Beige, Duke Ellington composed hundreds of masterful short-form pieces for which the musicians in his orchestra plied their own artistry. But as early as the 1920s, Ellington was also writing works that were too lengthy to fit on one side of a 78-rpm recording; these include "Creole Rhapsody" and "Reminiscing in Tempo." In the early 1930s, Ellington began work on an opera, Boola. He viewed it
[. . . ] as a kind of corrective to the more academic visions of black history supplied by composers who followed the classically oriented rules of composition... "I wrote it because I want to rescue Negro music from well-meaning friends...All arrangements of historic American Negro music have been made by conservatory-trained musicians who inevitably handle it with a European technique. . . . It's time a big piece of music was written from the inside by a Negro."1
Although he never secured the backing to produce Boola, he reworked it as Black, Brown, and Beige, a largely instrumental, programmatic work of music. Ellington came up with the term "tone parallel" to describe the work, a term that is suggestive of the phrase "tone poem," which is used to describe a one-movement piece of programmatic music. The three movements were entitled "Black," "Brown," and "Beige." In his autobiography, Ellington wrote:
Black, Brown, and Beige was planned as a tone parallel to the history of the American Negro, and the first section, "Black," delved deeply into the Negro past. In it, I was concerned to show the close relationship between work songs and spirituals. "Work Song," used in many forms, recognized that a work song was sung as you worked, so that there was a place for the song and a place where you grunt.2
"Black," begins with the dramatic sound of two drums being struck, "probably [symbolizing] the African origins of American slaves."3 A short, defiant motive with blues undertones alternates with an orchestral punctuation, representing a work song and workers' grunts. Next, the mood dramatically changes with an aggressively performed sax solo, and these contrasting themes are developed until a brief, plaintive violin solo interrupts. The bluesy/tympani theme returns, and a skillfully constructed baritone sax solo by Harry Carney calms the mood. The orchestration, development, textures, colors, dynamics, harmonic complexity, rhythmic nuance, and melodic strength of this opening section exemplify Ellington's compositional virtuosity. It is music that is both complex and cohesive, and immediately recognizable as an Ellington composition.
"Black" continues with imaginative passages that culminate in another work song played by trombonist "Tricky" Sam Nanton. Through the use of a straight mute, the rubber section of a plumber's plunger, and innovative techniques with his mouth, Nanton produced striking "ya-ya" vocal-like sounds from his trombone. Nanton, and some other of Ellington's instrumental soloists, had developed and perfected ingenious techniques for mimicking the sound of human cries, moans, and other vocalizations. Through the display of such musical techniques in this composition, it could be said that Ellington and his soloists were giving voice to the African Americans workers who had toiled in the era of the work song.
The tolling of a bell marks the beginning of the second half of "Black," which is entitled "Come Sunday." Ellington writes, "'Come Sunday,' the spiritual theme, was intended to depict the movement inside and outside the church, as seen by workers who stood outside, watched, and listened, but were not admitted. This is developed to the time when the workers have a church of their own."4 After the introductory bell, portions of a slow, quiet, and well-contoured new melody are introduced. Trombone and violin solos, and passages scored for other sections of the orchestra give symbolic voice to the hopeful congregation. These solos lead into Johnny Hodges's slow and emotional rendering of the full new theme.5 A trumpet solo briefly prolongs the mournful atmosphere before he transforms the mood to boisterous joy: the point at which the church is formed. Here, nearly seventeen minutes into the first movement, the band works towards a full-throated "shout" chorus, after which the intensity ebbs for a bass solo. For the remaining few minutes of the movement, Ellington continues to build on his ideas until "Black" comes to a somewhat abrupt end, a deliberate choice on Ellington's part: "The section ends with promises. I felt that the kind of unfinished ending was in accordance with reality, that it could not be tied, boxed, and stored away when so much else remained to be done."6
Ellington begins the second movement, "Brown," with a brief melodic quote from "The Girl I Left Behind" that Ellington permeates with a bluesy feel. By imbuing a song closely associated with the War of 1812 with the blues, Ellington slyly draws attention to the contributions of African Americans in the American military. He explains,
The second section, "Brown," recognized the contribution made by the Negro to this country in blood. We began with the heroes of the Revolutionary War, the first of three dances, "West Indian Dance," being dedicated to the valorous deeds of the seven hundred free Haitians of the famed Fontages Legion who came to aid the Americans at the siege of Savannah."7
The horns enter with a clave rhythm that represents West Indian contributions to American musical styles. Once this idea is developed, Ellington creates a propulsive rhythmic backdrop for the saxophones, which evokes a chugging train and its whistle. The band's precision, the swing with which it plays, and Ellington's arranging skill, turn what could be a trite idea into an effective symbol of modernization. This driving rhythm frames a trumpet and trombone duet, which symbolizes "the lighter attitude that is representative of the younger generation who had so much to look forward to when the proclamation of the emancipation was declared and came as a sky-rocket."8 A lone sax emerges from the group and is joined by a second sax to start the first of two duets. Ellington explains:
But of course there are two sides to all stories and it was just a small group of very old people who had earned the right to sit down and rest on somebody's property and of course, their song was a very plaintive but tragic one. I want to call particular attention to it because it's represented in a couple of duets—one with the baritone and tenor sax, and the other with the trumpet and trombone duets.9
The second half of "Brown," revolves around Betty Roche singing "The Blues." Ellington describes the underlying meaning of this part of the piece: "Moving on to the Spanish-American War, we pictured the home-coming of the decorated heroes, and then that offspring of romantic triangles which was and is 'The Blues.'"10 The lyrics in the first and third stanzas create a pyramid, a technique that is inverted in the final stanza:
The blues ain't
The blues ain't nothin'
The blues ain't nothin' but a cold gray day
And all night long it stays that way
'Tain't sumpin' that leaves you alone
'Tain't nothin' I want to call my own
'Tain't sumpin' with sense enough to get up and go
'Tain't nothin' like nothin' I know
The blues don't
The blues don't know
The blues don't know nobody as a friend
Ain't been nowhere where they're welcome back again.
Low, ugly, mean blues
The blues ain't sumpin' that you sing in rhyme
The blues ain't nothin' but a dark cloud markin' time
The blues is a one-way ticket from your love to nowhere
The blues ain't nothin' but a black crepe veil ready to wear
Sighin', cryin', feel most like dyin'
The blues ain't nothin'
The blues ain't
With "The Blues," Ellington creates a composition in which the lyrics are treated as poetry, and surrounds this construction with modernistic jazz. At times, the words are stated without accompaniment and are followed by musical punctuations. At other times, Ellington finds dark musical textures to enhance the mood of the poem. And while the song is set to a strong melody, the loose phrasing and non-metrical rhythms maintain the feeling that "The Blues" is both poetry and music concurrently. Most of "The Blues" is not constructed on a twelve-bar blues form. However, between the third and last stanza, Ellington slyly slips in one chorus of a beautifully orchestrated twelve-bar blues into an extended instrumental interlude.
The third movement, "Beige," portrays African Americans from the end of World War I until the time that the piece was composed, the middle of World War II. It starts with a raucous intensity that reflects the boisterous spirit of the 1920s. In Ellington's words, the music represents "the common view of the people of Harlem, and the little Harlems around the U.S.A., as just singing, dancing, and responding to the tom-toms."11 The mood is interrupted by Ellington's solo piano. He explains the change in the movement's character:
On closer inspection, it would be found that there were more churches than cabarets, that the people were trying to find a more stable way of living, and that the Negro was rich in experience and education. For instance, at the time there were forty-two Red Caps in New York's Grand Central and Penn Stations who had Ph.D.'s.12
The sophistication of the African American community is further represented by a waltz, a musical form that wasn't commonly used in jazz until the 1950s. Ellington admitted that the waltz section was "rough around the edges," but even then, it contained some imaginative harmonic twists and some interesting arranging ideas. The theme of sophistication continues in the next section, which evokes the "atmosphere of a Sugar Hill Penthouse in Harlem which could neither be understood nor appreciated unless one had lived there."13
"Beige" does not rise to the level of compositional and arranging virtuosity heard in the first two movements. However, Ellington made some intriguing musical statements in it, experimenting with concepts that are not often present in big band music of his era. For example, the first two minutes of the movement present a small collage of unrelated ideas, foreseeing one aspect of postmodern musical construction many years before its time.14 However, following the waltz section, the middle and latter parts of the movement sometimes have a meandering quality. Towards the end of "Beige," the theme from the end of the first movement returns before the piece ends with a climax that, despite its high energy, is not remarkably creative.
One of the main reasons "Beige" sounds less developed than the other two movements is because Ellington had run out of time to finish it. Gunther Schuller states, "There is no doubt that it [wasn't developed properly]. I know it because friends of mine were at the rehearsals in the days before the concert. That last movement was thrown together in such a frantic hurry. . . "15 While "Beige" may not equal the compositional excellence found in "Black" and "Brown," it holds some compelling ideas.
* * * * *
The 1943 Carnegie Hall performance of Black, Brown, and Beige was a major news event due not only to Ellington's enormous popularity, but also to the strong promotional efforts of the William Morris Agency. Before the concert, articles appeared in Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times and, for the first time, Look magazine featured a pictorial on an African American band.16 This marketing effort for the concert attracted critics from major New York newspapers and national music and entertainment periodicals. Some of the newspaper critics who had little knowledge of jazz and popular music were harsh. One of the negative reviews of Black, Brown, and Beige was written by Paul Bowles,17 a critic for the New York Herald-Tribune. While he complimented Ellington on his craft before going on to skewer Black, Brown, and Beige, Bowles devalued jazz as an art form with the opening remarks of his review: "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."18 With this one statement, Bowles denied the value of all other jazz artists up until 1943, including Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and Count Basie. As for Black, Brown, and Beige, Bowles wrote:
Presented as one number it was formless and meaningless. . . . The whole attempt to fuse jazz as a form with art music should be discouraged. The two exist at such different distance from the listener's faculties of comprehension that he cannot get them both clearly into focus at the same time. One might say they operate on different wavelengths; it is impossible to tune them in simultaneously.19
Jazz and classical music did develop on different continents, in different eras, with different sets of cultural, social, and economic roots, and with different sets of aesthetic values. But if the listener understands both genres of music, it is quite possible to "tune them in simultaneously." And despite the differences between the two genres, there are commonalities as well. Schuller notes, "For while the origins of jazz are certainly traceable to African antecedents, there can be little doubt. . . that jazz has already assimilated and transformed countless European musical elements in its brief history."20 Despite the bias implicit in Bowles review, it is noteworthy for exemplifying the important impact that Ellington had on transforming attitudes about the worth of popular music. Even though his dismissal of other jazz artists is just plain wrong, and he fed into the destructive prevailing opinion that jazz and other forms of popular music were of less value than "art music," Bowles at least gave Ellington credit for having the skills to be judged by "art music" standards.
Other articles and reviews about Black, Brown, and Beige illustrate the difficulties Ellington faced from both sides of jazz/classical divide. As Schuller points out, "Reactions to Black, Brown, and Beige were. . . mostly negative. They were also divided along traditional 'classical' and 'jazz' lines, the classical critics complaining about Ellington's lack of formal control, the jazz critics complaining about the lack of real jazz."21
Like Bowles, John Hammond, the record producer and talent scout who was generally an advocate for jazz, opposed Ellington's attempts to write large-scale works that incorporated jazz and blues music. Hammond wrote, that at the Cotton Club, Ellington's group "became not only a great dance orchestra, but the greatest show band of all times. . . . His great popular song successes were written during this period, and through his records, he became a music hero at home and in Europe."22 Hammond then went on to express his displeasure with Ellington:
During the last ten years he has...introduced complex harmonies solely for effect and has experimented with material farther and farther away from dance music. . . . It took courage to do this and one could only wish that he were being rewarded by the quality of his product increasing with his ambition. But the more complicated his music becomes the less feeling his soloists are able to impart to their work. . . It was unfortunate that Duke saw fit to tamper with the blues form in order to produce music of greater "significance."23
Schuller notes, "The jazz aficionados' disappointment over Black, Brown, and Beige's failure to 'comply' with prevailing jazz, i.e. swing criteria, tells us much more about their limitations than those they ascribed to Ellington."24
Hammond did offer some positive comments about other parts of the concert and even some sections of Black, Brown, and Beige, but continued to voice his opposition to Ellington's ambitions as a "serious" composer: "My feeling is that by becoming more complex he has robbed jazz of most of its basic virtue and lost contact with his audience."25 Thus, Bowles, a classical critic, was telling Ellington that jazz and "art music" were irreconcilable, and Hammond, a jazz critic, was lecturing him that if made too complex, jazz loses its virtue.
* * * * *
Missing from all of the reviews of Black, Brown, and Beige, whether negative or positive, was any mention of the effort Ellington was making to use his popularity to transform attitudes about race in his country. Based on estimates of record sales,26 as well as his concert touring, radio exposure, and sheet music sales, Duke Ellington was arguably the most popular African American musician between 1927 and 1943. His ability to use this popularity to gain a high-profile booking at Carnegie Hall was an achievement that, by itself, had an effect on how African Americans were perceived. That he used the event as an opportunity to discuss issues of African-American history leaves little doubt that Ellington was committed to using (and risking) his popularity to improve the standing of African Americans. As a well-traveled musician, he was acutely aware of the discriminatory and demeaning treatment with which African Americans regularly coped:
Black jazz musicians faced constant discrimination and humiliation. Much of it was due to the common racism of the day, which forced them to ride in the backs of buses, find lodging in black neighborhoods, and enter nightclubs and theaters through back doors or freight elevators. Touring bands, on trains or on buses, suffered insults from whites who sought to put African Americans "in their place."27
Despite his star-status, Ellington and his group were subject to appalling treatment on a regular basis. Richard O. Boyer, a writer for the New Yorker magazine who traveled with Ellington's orchestra, described an incident he witnessed in St. Louis. In his depiction of the incident, Ellington's two "white employees"28 were able to quickly hail a taxi to one of the town's good hotels while the African American members of the band—after considerable begging—were taken to a rickety hotel in the African American part of the city. The next day, the group was unable to purchase food before the concert and performed hungry. These difficulties encountered by the band members in obtaining food, housing, and transportation were often accompanied by vicious racial insults.29
Ellington's interest in transforming racial attitudes developed early in his life. He remembered his eighth-grade principal telling him and his classmates, "When we went out into the world, we would have the grave responsibility of being practically always on stage, for every time people saw a Negro they would go into a reappraisal of the race."30 With his high profile performing career, and the creation and performance at Carnegie Hall of Black, Brown, and Beige, this figurative stage became a literal one. Sonny Greer, the drummer on the Carnegie Hall recording of Black, Brown, and Beige, stated,
All through the years, Duke has been deeply concerned about his race and its problems. The feelings of the Negro, as interpreted by him, are there in the music. But the man never makes it a great point of his interest; he's too subtle for that. He just composes works like Black, Brown, and Beige, . . . leaving it to the people to find and interpret his thoughts for themselves.31
Greer was partially correct. Ellington was a master of subtlety and tact. In the many articles he wrote, and countless interviews he gave, Ellington never explicitly described or complained about the ugly conditions under which the group operated. When he chose to speak about his feelings on racial matters, he selected his words carefully. But what seems to be missing in Greer's statement is the recognition of the effectiveness with which Ellington used language to express himself on issues of race.
From the time he gained fame in the 1920s, to the Carnegie Hall concert, overly candid speech on matters of race likely would have caused serious repercussions for Ellington and his career.32 But he also knew that the stature he held as a celebrity gave him some opportunities to speak out on social issues. He used this capital judiciously and effectively. For example, in a 1930 interview, Ellington said: "I am just getting a chance to work out some of my own ideas of Negro music. I stick to that. We as a race have a good deal to pay our way with in a white world."33 And in 1931, he stated:
The music of my race is something more than the "American idiom." It is the result of our transplantation to American soil, and was our reaction in the plantation days to the tyranny we endured. What we could not say openly we expressed in music, and what we know as "jazz" is something more than just dance music.34
By 1941, Ellington's language had seemingly become more potent. In part of a speech given to an African American church, and later published in the California Eagle, Ellington stated:
I contend that the Negro is the creative voice of America, is creative America, and it was a happy day in America when the first unhappy slave was landed on its shores.
There, in our tortured induction into this "land of liberty," we built its most graceful civilization. Its wealth, its flowering fields and handsome homes; its pretty traditions; its guarded leisure and its music, were all our creations.
We stirred in our shackles and our unrest awakened Justice in the hearts of a courageous few, and we recreated in America the desire for true democracy, freedom for all, the brotherhood of man, principles on which the country had been founded.
We were freed and as before, we fought America's wars, provided her labor, gave her music, kept alive her flickering conscience, prodded her on toward the yet unachieved goal, democracy—until we became more than a part of America! We—this kicking, yelling, touchy, sensitive, scrupulously-demanding minority—are the personification of the ideal begun by the Pilgrims almost 350 years ago.35
This excerpt, like Black, Brown, and Beige, uses potent imagery and historical facts in its call for recognition of African American achievement. Yet, Ellington's skillful use of musical composition, and the written and spoken word was just part of a wider approach he used to transform American society. In addition to these skills, he employed a carefully constructed public persona, and developed tactics to neutralize prejudice against the word "jazz." The performance of Black, Brown, and Beige at Carnegie Hall was tied to all of these strategies. As to the persona, Ellington spent considerable energy trying to strike a balance between promoting his popular music and projecting an image as a serious composer. Advertisements for concerts showed him wearing tuxedos and holding a baton, images borrowed from the prototypical classical conductor. The promotional campaign for the Carnegie Hall concert built upon this image-making.
Ellington's desire to transform attitudes about race was also tied to his goal of breaking down prejudices towards jazz. His desire to avoid the term "jazz" to describe his music became more fervent after the critics' reactions to Black, Brown, and Beige. Ellington stated: "We stopped using the word jazz in 1943. That was the point when we didn't believe in categories."36 The concert brought to the surface much of the prejudice that jazz and other forms of popular music faced from the classical music establishment—hostility that had some of its origins in racist attitudes. Ellington also wanted to move beyond the term because of the perceived origins of the genre in New Orleans brothels. He believed that this was one of the hurdles that needed to be overcome for African Americans to gain control of their art and receive recognition for their contributions to American culture.37
* * * * *
A jazz musician's artistry manifests itself through a number of skills including improvisation, composition, active listening, and spontaneous interaction. Ellington, as much as any other jazz artist, showed that these skills, if properly presented, could be used as a force for social change. Concurrently, he was making a proclamation about the value of American popular music in the face of the hegemonic dominance of European classical music. In a statement he made in 1930 that showed he understood the profound impact he was having on American music, Ellington stated:
I am not playing jazz. I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people. I believe that music, popular music of the day, is the real reflector of the nation's feelings. Some of the music which has been written will always be beautiful and immortal. Beethoven, Wagner and Bach are geniuses; no one can rob their work of the merit that is due it, but these men have not portrayed the people who are about us today, and the interpretation of these people is our future music. . . . The Negro is the blues. Blues is the rage in popular music. And popular music is the good music of tomorrow.38
In essence, Ellington was proclaiming, correctly, that the dominance of the European classical tradition in music was being challenged and even surpassed by the artistic and popular ascendancy of African American music. Thirteen years later, with the Carnegie Hall performance of Black Brown, and Beige, Ellington further challenged the power of the mostly-white, classical establishment.
He was also prescient in his prediction that the blues would define the future of popular music. Rhythm and blues, rock and roll, jazz, country/western, rap, and other forms of blues-influenced music have dominated American popular music for the last sixty years. And this domination has occurred during a period of increased racial integration and tolerance. Ellington played an essential part in linking and advancing both of these on-going phenomena.
Anderson, Maureen. "The White Reception of Jazz in America." African American Review 38, no.1 (Spring 2004).
Bowles, Paul. "Duke Ellington in Recital for Russian War Relief." New York Herald-Tribune, January 25, 1943.
Boyer, Richard O. "The Hot Bach - I." The New Yorker, June 24, 1944.
Cohen, Harvey G. "Duke Ellington and Black, Brown and Beige: The Composer as Historian at Carnegie Hall." American Quarterly 56, no.4 (December 2004).
Ellington, Duke. The Duke Ellington Carnegie Hall Concerts, January 1943, Prestige 2PCD-34004-2. CD. 1977.
______. "The Duke Steps Out." Rhythm, March 1931.
______. "Speech of the Week." California Eagle, February 13, 1941.
Ellington, Edward Kennedy ("Duke"). Music Is My Mistress. Garden City, N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1973.
Hammond, John. "Is the Duke Deserting Jazz?" Jazz 1.8 (May 1943).
Lavezzoli, Peter. The King of All, Sir Duke: Ellington and the Artistic Revolution. New York: Continuum, 2001.
Mabie, Janet. "Ellington's 'Mood in Indigo'." Christian Science Monitor, December 13, 1930.
Nicholoson, Stuart. Reminiscing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999.
Peretti, Burton W. Jazz in American Culture. Chicago: Irvin R. Dee, 1997.
Porter, Eric. What is This Thing Called Jazz?: African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.
Schuller, Gunther. Musings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
______. The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Tucker, Mark, ed. The Duke Ellington Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Whitburn, Joel. Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954: The History of Popular Music. Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research, Inc., 1986.
Zunser, Florence. "Opera Must Die, Says Galli-Curci! Long Live the Blues!" New York Evening Graphic Magazine, December 27, 1930.
1Cohen, "Duke Ellington," 1006.
2Ellington, Music, 181.
3Cohen, "Duke Ellington," 1013.
4Ellington, Music, 181.
5Even though Ellington only performed Black, Brown, and Beige in its entirety a few times, this portion of it, "Come Sunday," became a jazz standard.
6Ellington, Music, 181.
8Ellington's spoken introduction, The Duke Ellington Carnegie Hall Concerts, Disc 2, Track 1, 1977.
12Ibid. To the best of my knowledge, Ellington's claim about the Red Caps has not been substantiated.
13Ellington, Music, 182.
14I don't mean to imply that musical collage had not been attempted before this time. Twentieth century classical composers had already experimented with the technique, but it was not yet commonly used at the time.
15Lavezzoli, The King of All, 111.
16Cohen, "Duke Ellington," 1009.
17Bowles was interested in Ellington's music, the blues, and other non-classical forms of music. However, he appeared to have much more knowledge of music from the classical tradition than he did of jazz.
18Bowles, "Duke Ellington in Recital," 25.
20Schuller, Musings, 122.
21Schuller, The Swing Era, 148.
22Hammond, "Is the Duke Deserting Jazz?," 15.
24Schuller, Swing, 148.
25Hammond, "Is the Duke Deserting Jazz?," 15.
26According to estimates from Joel Whitburn, Duke Ellington had fifty-eight top-thirty recordings from 1927 to 1941. See Whitburn, Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories.
27Peretti, Jazz In American Culture, 56.
28Juan Tizol, one of the two employees discussed in the depiction, was in fact Puerto Rican.
29Boyer, "The Hot Bach - II," reprinted in Tucker, ed, The Duke Ellington Reader, 232.
30Ellington, Music, 17.
31Nicholson, Reminiscing, 249.
32Cohen, "Duke Ellington," 1021.
33Mabie, "Ellington's 'Mood in Indigo,'" 15.
34Ellington, "The Duke Steps Out," 22, reprinted in Tucker, ed, The Duke Ellington Reader, 49.
35Ellington, "Speech of the Week," The California Eagle, page unknown, reprinted in Tucker, ed, The Duke Ellington Reader, 147).
36Nicholson, Reminiscing, 247.
38Zunser, "'Opera Must Die," New York Evening Graphic Magazine, page unknown, reprinted in Tucker, ed, The Duke Ellington Reader, 45).