Album: Black, Brown and Beige
Artist: Duke Ellington
Genre: Big Band
Duke Ellington changed his sound every decade. In the 1920s, his mid-tempo mood music was the perfect counterpoint to Dixieland. In the Swing Era of the 1930s, his style evolved to one of extreme elegance and sophistication. And in the 1940s, he refined his approach even further. Extended suites like Black, Brown and Beige were the natural next steps on his musical trajectory.
Although Ellington was the master of the three-minute miniature, he had begun experimenting with longform composition as early as 1935 — the 13-minute “Reminiscing in Tempo,” a contemplative ode to his recently deceased mother, was stretched across two 10-inch 78rpm records. Critical reaction was mixed (the innovative piece was somewhat meandering), but the song proved that Ellington was as much a stylistic boundary-pusher as he was a jazz-pop savant.
This ambition reached a new level during Ellington’s famous Carnegie Hall concerts of 1943, where the Black, Brown and Beige suite first premiered in its entirety. Subtitled “a Duke Ellington tone parallel to the American Negro,” the original performance lasted 48 minutes. An edited, 18-minute version was later issued in 1946 on Victor Records, culled from the original concert.
Unfortunately, reaction to Ellington’s latest longform opus was once again mixed. Critics reviewed it from a classical music point of view, and deemed Black, Brown and Beige unworthy of symphonic prestige. However, that’s a rather conservative way to judge the piece, especially considering the Third Stream experiments that Miles Davis and Gil Evans pioneered the following decade. The truth is that Black, Brown and Beige was remarkably ahead of its time.
Throughout the multi-movement piece, big band music stands side by side with violin ballads and vocal interludes. Each section brings something different to the table, and even if the suite is slightly lacking in musical cohesion, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Yet despite its innovations, the suite doesn’t fulfill Ellington’s noble intentions to make a Civil Rights statement. Black, Brown and Beige is noticeably lacking in one color: the blues. As a result, the narrative of African American history is never truly reflected in the music.
Nevertheless, the composition is a landmark in jazz music history. Although Ellington would reactively rein in his ambitions on future suites, Black, Brown and Beige opened the door for experimentation in the decades to come. It’s an essential piece of Ellingtonia.