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Musical tones in Ellington's dukedom come in beige, tan, brown, and black

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29.08.2021

In the color palette that Black musicians paint with, it should come as no surprise that the tones and shades used often reflect and project our skin tones and the words used to describe them. In other cases the very names used by groups or individual entertainers played upon how we were viewed and marketed to the world outside of the Black community.

We are a pastiche of hues, from ecru, beige, and tan to honey deepening into redbone. We are coffee and chocolate, darkening into rich deeper tones that are often described as “black”; however, they contain hints of eggplant and blue. In essence we are a symphonic blend of musical complexions and complexities; for today’s Black Music Sunday, I’ll explore them through the work of the late great Duke Ellington, namely his 1943 Black, Brown and Beige symphony, and 1927’s “Black and Tan Fantasy.”

David Johnson, writing for Indiana Public Media in 2020, offers a great introduction to the Black, Brown And Beige symphony.

Carnegie Hall was an esteemed venue where very few jazz artists had ever appeared; African-American bandleader James Reese Europe had performed there in 1912, and Benny Goodman and other swing musicians had played it in 1938 and 1939. Duke Ellington‘s debut there was widely covered in the media and seen as a moment of artistic arrival for the composer, who at this point had already been leading a band for nearly 20 years, and had scored numerous hits such as "It Don‘t Mean A Thing If It Ain‘t Got That Swing" and "Don‘t Get Around Much Anymore.". Ellington scholar Harvey Cohen, author of Duke Ellington‘s America, which devotes an entire chapter to Black, Brown and Beige, says the buildup to the Carnegie concert was tremendous, in both the mainstream and the African-American press, and that it may represent, along with Ellington's famous 1956 "comeback" performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, the zenith of publicity and attention in the composer's 50-year-long career. [...]

What Ellington produced-a 45-minute-long jazz symphony, as well as a long manuscript that provided a wealth of narrative detail for the story he wished to tell, and which has remained unpublished-was extraordinary for its time. He called it "a tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America." Musically, the three-part suite depicted black people brought to America to work as slaves, fighting in wars on behalf of the country that had enslaved them, and searching for a new and better life in the decades following the Civil War. In so doing, he hoped to give African-Americans a deeper historical sense of themselves that would translate into an enhanced modern-day sense of identity.

Here is the entire recording of Ellington’s January 1943 Carnegie Hall concert, which included his premiere of Black, Brown and Beige.

Claudia Roth Pierpont, writing for The New Yorker in 2010, explored Ellington’s symphonic debut in depth.

… much of the program that night made a statement. There were no pop vocals; Ellington presented a trio of new musical portraits of the historic black performers Bert Williams, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, and Florence Mills; even the brassy instrumental “Ko-Ko,” of 1940, was, Ellington told the audience, meant to portray the square in New Orleans where slaves had once come together to dance—the place where jazz was born. Everything was designed to set off “Black, Brown and Beige,” a three-movement composition,........

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