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Liner Notes: Irving Townsend on “Black, Brown and Beige,” by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, Featuring Mahalia Jackson

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A recording essential to anyone who appreciates jazz is Duke Ellington’s 1943 jazz symphony Black, Brown and Beige, written for his first Carnegie Hall concert appearance. Described by many critics as his most ambitious composition, Ellington called it a “tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America.”  Ellington only performed it complete on three occasions; once at Westchester County’s Rye High School on January 22, 1943, the Carnegie Hall concert the next night, and in Boston’s Symphony Hall a week later.

Fifteen years later, Ellington revised the composition, which Columbia released as Black, Brown and Beige, “Featuring Mahalia Jackson.”  In his recently published Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, Terry Teachout writes that this recording was “falsely billed by Columbia as a complete version of ‘Black,’ the work’s first movement, augmented by a vocal version of ‘Come Sunday’ performed by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who also contributed an impromptu ‘setting’ of the Twenty-Third Psalm.  (‘He didn’t rehearse me nothin’,” she later said of the latter performance.   ‘He said, “Just open the Bible and Sing!”‘).  For those who hoped that Ellington would put all of Black, Brown and Beige on record, it was a disappointment.”  

This sets the stage for this edition of “Liner Notes” – Columbia Records producer Irving Townsend’s description of the 1958 recording of Black, Brown and Beige, by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, Featuring Mahalia Jackson, where Townsend not only describes the reworked composition, but also touches on Ellington’s decision to include Mahalia Jackson.

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  It is, fortunately, much too soon for anyone familiar with the music of Duke Ellington to assess it in terms of what is best or most important. As this is being written, Duke, in another room in another city, is writing music for tomorrow, just as, in January of 1943, he was writing Black, Brown and Beige for a concert at Carnegie Hall which took place before the ink was dry on the copyist’s pages. As long as he has his great orchestra and an imminent deadline, there is the assurance of new Ellington music. And as long as we know that, we know that the greatest Ellington composition of all may be the next one.

But Black, Brown and Beige must always be near the top of all he writes, and because of that and the surprising fact that little of it has ever been heard on records, this album is inevitable. And BB&B, as Duke calls it, concerns itself with the most important element in a Negro’s life – color. It is in some ways a musical history of the Negro in America and a reminder that black, brown and beige are not simply three colors of the skin, but three ways of life.

Serious and important as the subject of the music is, Ellington’s view of it is, as always, a mixture of originality, humor, and jazz, for as an observer of life, Duke is remarkably unlike anyone else. When he writes a love song, he is likely to say musically something new about love. “Love is unconditional,” he told me. “It’s not, ‘Where have you been,’ but ‘How are you?'” And when he writes about his own race, he tells, again musically, something new. “When the Negro got shipped over here from Africa, he thought he was going to be eaten,” he explained. “Think how relieved he must have been when he found out all he had to do was work. ” The work song Duke wrote for the opening of Black, Brown and Beige is both vigorous and optimistic, and perhaps this is the explanation.

This performance consists of the two principal parts of the complete piece, Work Song, heard in Parts I and III, and Come Sunday, heard in Parts II, III, and IV and V. Both themes are stated, developed, and restated with new ideas and new meanings inherent in the music of a man who has a horror of simply repeating something he once did well.

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The decision to include Mahalia Jackson in Black, Brown and Beige was made two years before the actual event took place in Columbia’s Hollywood studios. Duke, who describes Mahalia as the finest cook in America, has long felt, like so many of us, the magnificence of her talent. Awed and inspired by her voice and her convictions, he hesitated over this collaboration as would any composer faced with writing music for the finest of all performers. Once the decision was made to give Mahalia the Come Sunday theme, he sent her the music, then without a lyric, and called her frequently from a dozen cities to persuade her to sing for the first time with a jazz orchestra. His message was usually, “Don’t worry about it.” Mahalia’s usual reply was, “All right, Duke, if you say so.”

Ellington was appearing at a jazz club in Hollywood when Mahalia Jackson arrived at Union Station in Los Angeles a week before the first recording session. During the intervening days, they met each afternoon at a piano to write and rehearse the beautiful Come Sunday. And on the last afternoon of rehearsal, Duke asked Mahalia to bring her Bible with her. He opened it to the Twenty-Third Psalm, played a chord, and asked her to sing.  We had decided that the Black, Brown and Beige needed a finale by Mahalia and this was to be it. Seldom in music has such an improvisation been accomplished. Seldom, even in Duke’s career, have composition and performance been so simultaneous.

Part I

Black, Brown and Beige opens with Sam Woodyard’s drums, leading to a full-orchestra statement of the Work Song. Solos that follow are by Harry Carney, baritone sax, Shorty Baker, trumpet, Quentin Jackson, trombone.

Part II

This section introduces Come Sunday instrumentally with a valve trombone solo by John Sanders, followed by solos from Ray Nance, violin, Duke at the piano, Harry Carney, and Shorty Baker.

Part III

This section closes the first side by combining the Work Song and Come Sunday. Solos are by Shorty Baker, who opens the section, “Cat” Anderson on trumpet with plunger, Britt Woodman, trombone, with a final all-out statement of the two themes.

Part IV

Come Sunday now becomes Mahalia’s. In fact, she hums an extra chorus as if she were aware of the power of her performance and wanted to let it linger a moment more.

Part V

Ray Nance is featured in a violin statement of Come Sunday intended to provide an interlude between Mahalia’s first and final performances.

Part VI

Mahalia Jackson sings the Twenty-Third Psalm.

– Irving Townsend

“Come Sunday,” from Black, Brown and Beige, by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, featuring Mahalia Jackson