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Composed: 1943

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd=piccolo/alto flute), 3 oboes (3rd=English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd=bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd=contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, also saxophone, baritone saxophone, jazz bass, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, glockenspiel, marimba, crash cymbals, ratchet, snare drum, sock cymbal, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, tom-toms, wind chimes), drum set, harp, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 20, 2022, Thomas Wilkins conducting

About this Piece

Depending on which scholar you ask, Ellington’s milestone “jazz symphony” Black, Brown and Beige resulted either from a month of frenetic backstage and late-night composition or was an expression of an idea that germinated for more than a decade. The reality, as with all things, is a combination of both.

By 1942, Ellington was a national hero and one of, if not the most, recognized figure of the big band era. Black-owned and mainstream newspapers extensively covered and built up expectations for Ellington’s concert at Carnegie Hall in January 1943, recognizing the significance of a Black jazz musician performing on this stage and declaring it a moment of artistic arrival for Ellington who had started his 20-year journey to that point in D.C. jazz clubs, matured playing in Harlem’s Cotton Club, before selling out every venue on his national tours.

Throughout the 1930s, Ellington continued to push the boundaries of big band composition with increasingly extended and complex works like Symphony in Black, Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, and Creole Rhapsody. As jazz scholar and writer Greg Thomas put it, “Limiting a Duke Ellington to a three-minute record would be like confining Toni Morrison or Phillip Roth to short nonfiction.” As early as 1930, Ellington also announced his intent to write a full-scale opera. Titled Boola, an African word referring to Black people, it was never completed or released, but ideas and elements of its long gestation were realized in other works. The opera was divided into multiple sections according to history, rather than a traditional plot, and followed a people’s journey from Africa, into the slave trade, Civil War, and ultimately Harlem—a structure he would put to use in Black, Brown and Beige.

Ellington expressed in interviews that he had the same artistic aims as Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, who sought to reclaim the telling of Black history and recast it with dignity. In the all-white Cotton Club, where Ellington spent so many nights, the stage shows often featured Old South plantation or African jungle backdrops always intended for laughs and cast through the lens of exotic primitivism. Speaking to San Francisco Chronicle music critic Alfred Frankenstein in 1941, Ellington explained, “I wrote [Boola] because I want to rescue Negro music from its 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.”

Duke Ellington officially began composing Black, Brown and Beige in December of 1942, roughly a month before his Carnegie Hall debut, but press from the time confirms that the 45-minute symphonic rhapsody reworks ideas and material from the opera. Not content to simply perform the music from his vast catalog, Ellington wanted to make a statement to a racially mixed Carnegie Hall audience that included the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Langston Hughes, Marian Anderson, Leopold Stokowski, Count Basie, and Frank Sinatra.

Introducing the piece to the audience, Ellington said, “We would like to say that this is a parallel to the history of the American Negro. And of course, it tells a long story.” The first movement, “Black,” opened with a tom-tom that evokes African drumming and serves as a unifying percussive leitmotif that re-emerges throughout the entire piece. The first theme comes in “A Work Song,” a song of burden, toil, and hardship. Despite the seriousness of his subject matter, Ellington interweaves hope and aspiration into his big band swing, marked by call and response between sections of the orchestra. Work gives way to prayer for salvation in “Come Sunday.” In its debut, the melody was carried by violin and alto saxophone, but ever the tinkerer, Ellington reworked the piece to be sung by Mahalia Jackson, which won her a Grammy Award and became a jazz standard.

The second section, “Brown,” seeks to tell the story of patriotic Black Americans fighting for their country and situates it in the Revolutionary, Civil, and Spanish-American Wars. The import of this performance, taking place at the height of WWII and even serving as a fundraiser for Russian war relief as the battle of Stalingrad raged on, offered an explicit subtext for this movement. Ellington, like many African Americans before him, hoped that patriotic service abroad might open the doors to better treatment at home. The inevitable letdown of that history culminates as “Brown” closes with “The Blues.”

Finally, “Beige” expresses a new era of progress for African Americans, highlighted by the Harlem Renaissance and economic gains. That new affluence is reflected in section titles like “Sugar Hill Penthouse,” which offers lush woodwind harmonies. But Ellington’s remarks about the piece show this wasn’t supposed to be a musical happy ending and that he saw this era as a “veneer of progress” when so many had so little.

Black, Brown and Beige bewildered both jazz and classical critics alike, each group unsure what to make of its use of pure jazz or pure classical standards. While the Carnegie Hall concert was deemed a massive success for the composer, the mixed reception of Black, Brown and Beige limited Ellington’s ability to revive the piece in its entirety to only a handful of times after its premiere. But the ambition and craft of Ellington’s longest piece has inspired a number of great performers, including Wynton Marsalis who said the piece “sits alone in the history of jazz.” —Ricky O’Bannon