Saturday, February 13, 2010

Indiana Public Media: 'Suite History: Four Jazz Composers and the African-American Odyssey'

[Black, Brown and Beige: A Duke Ellington Tone Parallel to the American Negro, as played by the Composer and his Famous Orchestra at his Carnegie Hall concerts; RCA Victor DC 39 (1944)]

Indiana Public Media
February 8, 2010
Suite History: Four Jazz Composers and the African-American Odyssey
By David Brent Johnson

In the early 20th century African-American composers began to write extended musical depictions of black American life–Scott Joplin with his unstaged opera Treemonisha, pianist James P. Johnson with his Yamekraw: a Negro Rhapsody, and–perhaps most successfully–William Grant Still with his Afro-American Symphony in 1931. That same year Duke Ellington told a reporter, 'I’m going to compose a musical evolution of the Negro race.' It took Ellington 12 years to achieve his goal–the 45-minute-long Black, Brown and Beige Suite: a Tone Parallel to the History of the Negro in America, which is now considered to be one of his greatest works.

Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige was the first of several large-scale orchestral compositions undertaken by jazz musicians that portrayed the journey of black people from Africa to enslavement in America, emancipation, and the subsequent difficulties and complexities of life in a racist and segregated country. He originally conceived it as a work called Boola, with five intended movements–Africa, Slaveship, Plantation, Harlem, and a finale. (A long narrative treatment that survives illuminates the backstory of Boola and the subsequent Black, Brown and Beige symphony.)

“Spurred on by the creation of his 1941 musical Jump For Joy, Ellington finally wrote
Black, Brown and Beige in a burst of a few weeks for his January 1943 debut at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The audience received it enthusiastically, but New York critics were less kind; Paul Bowles called it 'formless and meaningless,' while John Briggs of the New York Post said, 'Mr. Ellington was saying musically the same thing he had said earlier in the evening, only this time he took forty-five minutes to do it,' and jazz impresario John Hammond was moved to write an article titled, 'Is the Duke deserting jazz?' Although he never performed it in its entirety again after 1943, Ellington would revisit Black, Brown and Beige periodically for the rest of his career, making studio recordings of its various movements in 1944, 1958, and in the mid-1960s.” [Duke Ellingon, James P. Johnson, Scott Joplin and William Grant Still are profiled at]

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