When Duke Ellington debuted his masterpiece Black, Brown and Beige in 1943, it was the first work of its kind. His sprawling survey of African American history created a blueprint for protest music in Jazz and has since been heralded as one of the most significant compositions in American orchestral music. For their latest release, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis recorded the work in full, paying tribute to Duke's most personal work, while adding another chapter to its enduring legacy.
Read an excerpt of the liner notes for written by JLCO trombonist, Chris Crenshaw, who also served as conductor for this work. Black, Brown and Beige is out now on all digital platforms - listen to the album here or visit our web store to purchase.
In 1943, at the precarious and passionate time of the Second World War, Duke composed Black, Brown and Beige for a special concert at Carnegie Hall. Already a national hero and creator of a recognized world of sound, it was his most ambitious and longest work, possessing an architecture and complexity far beyond anything he had written. It was written to address Ellington’s most serious concern—the impact and ascendant trajectory of the American Negro experience. As one might imagine, the piece was not well-received by critics in its time; however, like other works of art that fall dim upon wandering eyes, Black, Brown and Beige has received its overdue praise with the passage of time. There are so many great moments of superior penmanship displayed in this piece that one must listen again and again. At each listening you will find some new melody, rhythm, or relationship. Its revelations are endless.
When it came time to rehearse and perform this masterpiece in 2018, we all came to the bandstand with the intention to call upon tradition, innovation, history, present-ness and substance for the sustenance of Duke and his artistic vision.
“Black” recalls the work song used to get through the tough days in the fields. And, as only Duke can only do, he employs various grooves, sudden time changes, pensive moments, and go-for-broke swing to give the tint of optimism to this seemingly hopeless experience. He constantly reminds us of “the beginning” by returning judiciously to the main theme in various iterations throughout the movement. Eli Bishop contributes his thoughts on violin alongside Paul Nedzela.
“Brown” deals with the Negro’s participation in the Revolutionary, Civil, and Spanish-American Wars. Everything culminates with “The Blues,” interpreted here with great depth by Brianna Thomas. Duke develops things by contrasting the “lighter attitude” of the young folks’ aspirations with the trumpet and trombone duet pushing the band through, only to be interrupted by the elder duet of baritone and tenor sax, who make plain the social progress yet to be achieved. The thought of freedom papers enters the fray as the hopeful trumpet and trombone come back and celebrate what they think is a new beginning; instead, the new beginning is revealed to be only a false hope as the dreams of the slaves and soldiers wither under the stern masters of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynching, and other monstrosities designed to impede progress. This is all summed up on “The Blues,” with tense chords, mournful wails, and sudden shrieks (led by Victor Goines’ clarinet); When we hear the dreaded slam of a floor tom with low woodwind accompaniment, we realize that the doors that should have been opened by past sacrifices have been shut.
“Beige” represents the beginning of a new era in the Negro community. The movement to affluence, recognition, and rising prosperity is highlighted by a flowing lyrical waltz played by Kenny Rampton on the trumpet and then by Elliot Mason on trombone. The high point of “Beige” is “Sugar Hill Penthouse.” It begins with the piano in the stars and ends with a swinging 4/4 iteration of the waltz theme by the clarinet-led saxophone section. This coda is the most masterful woodwind writing in all of jazz. Duke believed that there were few absolute endings in life. He hated to finish pieces. It’s hard to believe that this movement was unfinished because the finale is so grandiose, but it seems that Ellington wrote the overture into the end of the piece instead of the beginning. This is wholly in keeping with his practice of challenging conventions by often doing the opposite of the established rule and making definitive common-sense decisions.
Our Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra was founded with transcriber/ trumpeter David Berger recruiting and conducting many Ellingtonians who played in Duke’s great band from the mid-50s to his passing in 1974. They taught us how to play this music. It was my intention as a transcriber and conductor to be true to the spirit of Ellington. We sought to make every performance sing and dance with the spark of invention and play with love, respect, and dedication. That’s what Duke’s achievements demand and it’s what he deserves. Hallelujah!