Monday, August 8, 2011

Duke in Black, Brown & Beige

Jazz is improvisation. ("Oh... really?")

Sounds created by musical instruments manipulated, and players perhaps composing, on the fly, so to speak--aural ephemera released into the air, roiling the molecules, disturbing the stillness, then allowed to dissipate into... airy nothing, or urban legend, or Jazz history. The same tune played by the same set of musicians on separate occasions, or in one take after another in a recording session, might be magical one time and leaden all the others. The variety and number of possible readings and/or performances are infinite--or so we assume--even if recording equipment and human judgment seem to fasten on one among them all and declare it "definitive"... though it may be only of that moment.

Small group Jazz played by a few or by several is already expanding the performance options logarithmically with each new player added. So imagine the number of variables possible when a full orchestra plays, whether one as disciplined as the Jimmy Lunceford or Tommy Dorsey bands--or as spontaneous and freeflowing and subject to whims as the Ellington players and, certainly, the Duke himself. Perform an established number a thousand times--"Caravan," say, or "Cottontail," "Take the A-Train" or "Happy-Go-Lucky Local"--you still can screw-up. (You might also enter the mansions of glory by suddenly unleashing a solo the likes of which has never been heard before.)

But what if the composition itself is unfinished, its shape not firmly fixed, left in pieces that are available to be jigsaw-puzzled together at will (or whim)--Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle applied to already frangible, intangible Jazz? When Duke's mother died in 1938, his grief produced "Reminiscing in Tempo," a lovely work lengthy enough to fill the four sides of two 12" 78s. By January of 1943, he had set his sights higher, aiming for a three-part symphonic work, but still in Jazz, to celebrate 300 years of the Negro in the New World, which the Ellington Orchestra would premier at Carnegie Hall on the 23rd.

What happened? Was he rushed, overburdened with other projects, not quite up to the task he'd accepted? Whatever the Duke had prepared, however complete the structure or incomplete the detailed parts--dress-rehearsed the night before at a high school, officially premiered one night later with copyists' pages still being distributed to the players, rough patches in the performance shielded by wonderful passages of music--many attendees and the majority of critics felt disappointed. This "tone parallel" called Black, Brown & Beige was sprawling, amorphous, the structure, if any, not easily grasped.

The Duke retreated; he reconsidered and revised, all the while maintaining his charming, unflappable, stolidly positive public persona. When the second Carnegie night came 10 or 11 months later, Black, Brown & Beige had been shelved until, said the Maestro, the world was ready for it (or vice versa). A couple of years later, a much-shortened version, revised excerpts really, graced another Carnegie evening; and something approximating that cluster of pieces was actually recorded by RCA and issued--speaking of parallels--on two more 12" 78s, the four sides casually identified as "Work Song," "The Blues," "Come Sunday," and "Three Dances" and packed in a double-fold, color-pictorial paper sleeve.

I found a fairly nice copy years ago which I kept as a piece of collectable Ellingtonia. Revisiting it recently occasioned this brief blog notice (gave me a perfect excuse to offer photos of the rarely-seen packaging). As for the music, here Johnny Hodges' alto languidly lifts "Come Sunday," Joya Sherill explains "The Blues," and Harry Carney, Tricky Sam Nanton, Ray Nance, and other Ellington stalwarts take fine solos in the remaining two sections. But this trimmed version wasn't the last...

Label affiliations came and went. By 1958 Duke was firmly ensconced at Columbia Records once more and prepared to let the world hear the latest Black, Brown & Beige, revised yet again, this construction longer than RCA's but with the number of themes reduced. No more Blues, no more Dances; Johnny Hodges gone off and Mahalia Jackson drafted in, her voice in place of his sensuous sax. In fact, the orientation of this version is considerably more religious, the backstory now reduced to slaves' work and Sunday rest. The cover photo is wonderful, the orchestra clearly up for the sessions, Mahalia in fine voice... and still the overall impact is minor, the album a lesser item in Ellington collections--too polite, too sedate; too much repetition and not enough passion.

I miss Hodges, I want Nance to cut loose on his fiddle, I yearn for Mahalia's gospel fervor, not the 23rd Psalm. The despair of slavery, the joy of Emancipation, the strengths of Black culture... all blithely shunted aside. Why?

I don't know if Duke and his men ever tackled portions of the unfinished work casually, at some club date or college dance or more formal concert. But he had one more go-'round with "Come Sunday," recycling it yet again as he assembled the parts for his First Sacred Concert--the music and the event admired by many for various reasons, but I'm not a fan. "Waste not, want not," some might claim, praising Duke's stubborn refusal to give up on his long-lamented tone-parallel dream.

But I lament his retreat in the face of a hostile reception, his tacit acceptance of the bully critics' disparagement, and his decision thereafter to write only briefer works with more easily managed structures, suites rather than Jazz concertos or a Third Stream symphony. I'd say that the bemused, half-hearted acceptance by some, and the outright rejection by others, struck a major blow to Duke's evident self-esteem, a nagging disappointment he never could quite walk away from. It rankled.

He shrugged at the loss of the Pulitzer and moved on when Jump for Joy never really got off the ground. But confronted by the maddening partial failure--or call it the continuing limited success--of Black, Brown & Beige, Duke blinked and then kept on blinking.

He always was a contender. He routinely battled and won in the Middleweight division where, in or out of the ring, points are awarded for percipience and inspiration, sophistication and wit. ("Boxing as a metaphor for the cultured, elegant Ellington? Ridiculous." "Oh yeah?" says I. "Put up yer Dukes.")

I believe Ellington, that man of infinite variety, whom we all loved madly, should have been--could have been--the Heavyweight Champ.

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