Duke Ellington’s Carnegie Hall debut introduced a game changer; an extended work like non other. Reception varied from praise to condescension. As evidenced by the reviews, the level of the critical acceptance or dismissal of musical specifics and traditions not beholden to a European classical tradition, determined the level of patronizing within the analysis. But critics fade and zeitgeists are only temporary winds. No one is racing to buy tickets to hear some writer’s recitation of a music review. But there will always be ears for Ellington’s canon. Enduring the ages for 80 years, is Duke’s masterpiece, Black Brown and Beige.
The work was unprecedented. The years prior had yielded works from composers that were similar in that their synthesis of various African American folk elements, into something new, resulting in what author Albert Murray called the extension, elaboration and refinement of musical particulars; in this case, in an orchestral, African American art music incarnation. The jazz age begat Yamekraw by James P. Johnson; and the same African American musical elements and particulars, affected George Gershwin, resulting in Rhapsody in Blue. Both were large works. But in the case of Black Brown and Beige, the particulars melded even further into each other. And, the vessel being the Ellington point of view, the result was indeed, an opus alone on a hill without peer, quickly establishing itself as yet another contribution Ellington would leave us, as part of orchestral language for blues idiom expression in a large ensemble setting.
By this time, Ellington’s sound was an established aesthetic. And the band surely was accustomed to the challenge of interpreting Ellington’s palate. Russell Procope famously came in as a substitute, intending to stay for a few days and wound up staying for 28 years. He talked with excitement, about the new colors the maestro always could elicit from his pied pipers. In a documentary by director Gary Keys, Procope recalled, “(Duke) would say, you play so-and-so, you play so-and-so, you play so-and-so; and he’d bring his hand down and you’d hear the damnedest chord you ever heard in your life!” And Black, Brown and Beige even changed the course of events in the context of Ellingtonia itself. Most notably of course, it was the longest work of his to date. And all the experimentation and all he had learnt about putting different musical elements together, could be thought of as reaching a culminating moment with the premiere of this new piece at Carnegie Hall.
And because of its lasting power, 80 years after its premiere, perhaps the turbulence it caused is easily forgotten.
This work, like Ellington’s others, have long since become the language of how to orchestrate blues-based swing music for a large ensemble. What was iconoclastic, became iconic. So it’s easy to forget it was met by many critics, with condescension unfamiliarity with African American culture.
They were puzzled and frustrated that a long form work by an African American composer, who professed to be writing music that reflected “American Negro life” did not musically pine for, or genuflect toward, European musical traditions.
Critics like Robert Bagar, while lauding Ellington as a composer, complained the work lacked “formal” structure and continuity. He and other critics put European classical objectives into their analyses. But as Gunther Schuler pointed out, such critiques are based on ignoring that Black Brown and Beige comes out of a jazz tradition.
As much as Black, Brown and Beige “changed the game”, even for Duke himself, it was also a continuation of his artistic agenda - tone parallels, as he put it, of people - in particular, of the African American experience and the contributions people of African descent made to the United States. It is this fact, manifested in everything from his use of everything that came out of spirituals, the blues and his nod towards the diaspora, like a portion of the work acknowledging the Caribbean influence, that makes allegations that the work is an illustration of him “turning his back” on the struggles of his people, an obvious example of a lack of knowledge of Black historical narrative, which Ellington constantly alluded to in Black Brown and Beige.
Nevertheless, John Hammond called it a ‘tragedy’.
Hammond, a white producer, impresario and frequent, welcomed guest to Harlem and its music establishments, demonstrated a peculiar dichotomy of championing black artists, contrasted with, as he demonstrated in an article criticizing Black Brown and Beige, seeming to appoint himself a kind of commentator on how Black artists should conduct themselves. That Hammond thought Duke was “turning his back” on his own people’s struggle is curious when considering the general themes of Ellington’s oeuvre and in particular. But it is equally strange he felt he had jurisdiction to decide whether or not Ellington was acting in the interest of his people. All the Black people Hammond knew, and all the Harlem cafés, restaurants and record shops he was welcomed in, and all the Black artists he applauded could never convert into permission to tell a Black person how to be Black. One wonders if for some non-Blacks, the role of being an ally was misinterpreted as some magical license to lecture Black people about Blackness.
But Ellington had neither interest in, nor inclination to, humor anyone bent on giving him their opinion of how he should express the multi-facets of his culture. His search was one involving further experimentation and reaching back in history, while adding elements of himself and inspiration from his band members, (i.e. the present and the future).
While Reminiscing in Tempo was perhaps the spark representing things to come, Black Brown and Beige was a declaration: nothing would be the same. But of course, as with all his works, while we all tripped over each other trying to figure out what he had just done, Duke was somewhere off in a metaphorical corner, with a few horns and a piano, working things out; discovering something else to make us wonder how someone could sound like the ancestors and unchartered land at the same time.