American Quarterly 56.4 (2004) 1003-1034
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Duke Ellington and Black, Brown and Beige:
The Composer as Historian at Carnegie Hall
Harvey G. Cohen
Duke sometimes thinks that it is good business to conceal . . . his interest in American Negro history. He doubts if it adds to his popularity in Arkansas, say, to have it known that in books he has read about Negro slave revolts he has heavily underlined paragraphs about the exploits of Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey . . . New acquaintances are always surprised when they learn that Duke has written poetry in which he advances the thesis that the rhythm of jazz has been beaten into the Negro race by three centuries of oppression. The four beats to a bar in jazz are also found, he maintains in verse, in the Negro pulse. Duke doesn't like to show people his poetry. "You can say anything you want on the trombone, but you gotta be careful with words" he explains.
On January 23, 1943, the Duke Ellington orchestra appeared in its first concert at Carnegie Hall, amid an interracial audience featuring many celebrities and the biggest media build-up yet assembled on Ellington's behalf. The highlight of the evening was the premiere of his longest extended work, the forty-plus-minute Black, Brown and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the History of the American Negro, an ambitious multipart work that programmatically illustrated black history from the African continent to the African American contribution in World War II. With this event, Ellington used the music business power at his disposal, as well as the patriotic sentiments swirling around American engagement in World War II, to place the subjects of black achievement, pride, and history into the national consciousness even more fully than he had previously. The groundbreaking music of Black, Brown and Beige and Ellington's ambitions for its status as a historical text make it clearthat Ellington needs to be viewed as a significant figure in American history, as well as in American music.
The premiere of Black, Brown and Beige represented the highest profile example of Ellington's lifelong efforts to advance the politics of race through music, lifestyle, and image, but rarely words. No black American had ever been so widely hailed around the world as a major serious artistic figure without [End Page 1003] the stereotypes usually affixed to black entertainers. From the early 1930s on, the black media dubbed Ellington a leading "race man" and he enjoyed a crossover popularity with white audiences that no other black artist of his time could match. In the era of harsh Jim Crow denigration and violence during the first half of the twentieth century, before the civil rights movement made organized protest a common and relatively safe way for black Americans to register their desire for equality, Ellington subverted and undercut racial stereotypes, changing the possibilities for black Americans in the mass media. He did this by carefully cultivating an image of respectability and "genius" in his music, advertisements, shows, and film appearances. Ellington did not fight for civil rights in the manner of political activists, but he contributed much to that cause, most of it unrecognized because it did not fall within traditional forms of racial protest. By focusing on the subject of black history for his heavily promoted inaugural Carnegie Hall appearance and dressing like a classical conductor, Ellington provided a strong counter to the way black Americans were usually portrayed in the mass media. Ellington's beliefs concerning racial equality were molded during his youth in the turn-of-the-century middle-class African American neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., where an emphasis on black identity, pride, and history was imparted to black children in the segregated black school system and in their family lives. According to Ellington and later historians of the period, young blacks in this milieu were taught to command, rather than demand, respect for the race.2
The field of music proved an optimal venue for Ellington to...