When a Jazz Musician Shook Up Classical Music

When a Jazz Musician Shook Up Classical Music

Why you should care

Because sometimes masterpieces are way ahead of their time.

A racially mixed audience settled into the red velvet seats of Carnegie Hall, their faces gazing up at the gilded proscenium in a mirror image of the orchestral piece they were about to hear: Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige.” It was Jan. 23, 1943, and segregation was at its height, even in cosmopolitan New York City. Yet patrons like Eleanor Roosevelt and Frank Sinatra commingled with Count Basie and other Black celebrities in the illustrious venue for the debut of Ellington’s ambitious jazz suite with its groundbreaking theme — a celebration of the role and spirit of African-Americans in the history of the United States, the injustices committed against them, the struggles they faced and the triumphant emergence of their identity.

The concert’s promoters had taken out newspaper ads calling the new work “Duke Ellington’s first symphony,” while the composer himself had described it as “a parallel to the history of the Negro in America.” As “The Star-Spangled Banner” swelled out of the orchestra pit, audience members were unaware that they were about to witness a rare and historic moment of American unification — Black and white, classical and jazz.

Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be famous too young.

Duke Ellington, on being rejected for a Pulitzer Prize in 1965

“Black, Brown and Beige” was the result of extensive research by Ellington, who drew inspiration from anthropologist Franz Boas and African-American sociologist, historian and activist W.E.B. Du Bois. The first movement, “Black,” is in three parts — “Work Song,” “Come Sunday” and “Light” — that offer an aural retelling of slavery in America. It begins with the repetitive beating of a timpani to represent the monotony and hardship of slave labor. The second movement, “Brown,” chronicles slave rebellions in the early 19th century leading up to the creation of the blues at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Finally, “Beige” celebrates the emergence of African-American identity, from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s up to the early ’40s, when the piece was composed.

In writing “Beige,” Ellington drew from his own experience. Born on April 29, 1899, Edward Kennedy Ellington was raised in a middle-class Black neighborhood in Washington, D.C., by two talented musical parents. His father, a sometime butler for a prominent white doctor, always made sure his own family’s table was set formally and taught his son impeccable manners. The young man quickly earned the name “Duke” for his gentlemanly ways.

Furthermore, Washington at the turn of the 20th century was perhaps the best place in the nation to be born Black. It had the country’s largest African-American community, which established extensive cultural programs. Segregated schools taught etiquette and African-American history; in Ellington’s words, “They were concerned with you being representative of a great and proud race.”

The distinctly Black art form of jazz, however, exposed Ellington to the ugliness of racism. Early in his career, his Kentucky Club Orchestra played at New York’s famous Cotton Club, a Harlem venue that was modeled after a Southern plantation and typically admitted only white patrons. Nevertheless, his performances there gave him national renown, which grew beyond U.S. borders with tours throughout Europe in the 1930s.

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Despite a rigorous touring schedule that continued throughout his professional life, Ellington was a prolific composer, writing more than 2,000 songs.

Source Courtesy of Sony Music

But his experiment at Carnegie Hall, fusing jazz and classical traditions, received mixed reviews from critics. “Ellington struggled to achieve acceptance in the world of classical music, beset with institutional racism and widespread disdain toward jazz and popular music,” explains John Edward Hasse, author of Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington. “A few discerning composers seemed to ‘get’ him, such as Percy Grainger and Constant Lambert, but in 1943 classical music critics were not kind to his magnum opus.”

The lackluster reception convinced Ellington to revise the work into six shortened excerpts from the much longer suite. The album Black, Brown and Beige was released in 1958 and featured vocals by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. DownBeat gave the abbreviated version a rare five-star review.

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In his 50-year career, Ellington remained relevant in the always evolving world of jazz by frequently rearranging the compositions that had made him a household name.

Source Courtesy of Sony Music

That evening in Carnegie Hall was the only time Ellington performed his longest and most innovative work. However, the fact that the music was considered with respect by the “serious” classical world, and in such a prestigious setting, made it a game-changing event. And over time the classical community’s response to the suite began to change. When the Pulitzer Prize committee rejected Ellington in 1965 for an award in composition, Ellington famously quipped, “Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be famous too young.” He was 66 at the time. The committee awarded Ellington a special Pulitzer posthumously, in 1999.

After Ellington’s death in 1974, classical music began to break free of its traditional Eurocentrism, with critics treating jazz not just as popular music but as a serious art form. These days “Black, Brown and Beige” is performed regularly by symphony orchestras, and courses on Ellington are integral to the curricula at leading music schools in the U.S. and abroad. With the artistic and cultural acceptance of Ellington’s opus, a new movement might be added to his trilogy — one that speaks of triumph over great musical struggle.

Edward Kennedy Ellington — “Duke”

  • Vitals: b. April 29, 1899, Washington, D.C.; d. May 24, 1974, New York City
  • Instrument: Piano
  • Standards: “Mood Indigo” (1930), “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (1932), “Sophisticated Lady” (1933), “Take the A Train” (with Billy Strayhorn, 1939), “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (1940)
  • Quirks: His sidemen sometimes called the suave bandleader “Dumpy” for the weight gain caused by his voracious appetite; Ellington preferred private Pullman train cars when touring with his orchestra.
  • Another take: Duke Ellington’s America, by Harvey G. Cohen (2010)

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