Duke Ellington's 'Black, Brown And Beige' Set A Tone For Black Protest He called it "a parallel to the history of the American Negro." Duke Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige wasn't an immediate hit, but it set a tone for ambitious, provocative works about black life.
NPR logo

A Sprawling Blueprint For Protest Music, Courtesy Of The Jazz Duke

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/697075534/697152980" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Sprawling Blueprint For Protest Music, Courtesy Of The Jazz Duke

A Sprawling Blueprint For Protest Music, Courtesy Of The Jazz Duke

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/697075534/697152980" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

NPR is exploring the musical anthems that define and inspire us as Americans. And over the last several months, we've heard pop songs, rock, folk, classical. But what about a jazz anthem? Well, we have a go-to guide to jazz, and he has thoughts.

CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE, BYLINE: I am ready.

CORNISH: Christian McBride - bassist, composer and host of NPR's Jazz Night In America.

MCBRIDE: You know, you think of something like "Take Five" or "Take The "A" Train" or something like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "TAKE THE "A" TRAIN")

CORNISH: But the jazz anthem Christian really wanted to talk about was a sprawling three movement Duke Ellington suite called "Black, Brown & Beige." Now, there's an anthem within an anthem here too, part of the first movement. "Come Sunday" became a jazz standard and a hymn for the civil rights movement. Ellington had a grand ambition for "Black, Brown & Beige" which he told a mostly white audience at Carnegie Hall back in 1943.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DUKE ELLINGTON: This is a parallel to the history of the American Negro and, of course, it tells a long story.

MCBRIDE: I'm not sure you could be more bold than to go on stage at Carnegie Hall in 1943 as an African-American to say, the piece I'm going to premiere tonight is a parallel to the history of the American Negro. Boom.

CORNISH: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

MCBRIDE: You know what I mean?

CORNISH: Yeah. And it refers to three movements of a suite, and each one represents a kind of period in black history - "Black" being the lives of slaves - "Brown," I understand, kind of emancipation and...

MCBRIDE: Yes.

CORNISH: ...Service in American wars. And "Beige" is when he was taking on kind of contemporary black America at that time, right?

MCBRIDE: That's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: I was reading that, at the time, this crowd included Eleanor Roosevelt and Count Basie and Frank Sinatra. And, like, this was supposed to be a big, revelatory moment from him. But it also, in the end, got really mixed reviews, right? He took a lot of criticism for it.

MCBRIDE: Right. First of all, you have an African-American bandleader and composer playing a piece about the history of the American Negro in 1943 at Carnegie Hall. That alone might get you a couple of bad reviews before you even play a note. I think there were a lot of critics who sort of deemed themselves experts on fine music, you know, classical music.

So when you have this African-American composer using timpanis, violins but mixing it with swing rhythms, African rhythms, I'm sure a lot of reviewers had no idea what they were listening to. How do you write about something you don't know about?

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY HODGES' "COME SUNDAY")

CORNISH: I want to play another moment in this song, which is "Come Sunday." And we'll talk more about the later recording of this song, but let's hear a little bit of the original.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY HODGES' "COME SUNDAY")

CORNISH: So if Ellington's work is trying to tell a story...

MCBRIDE: Yes.

CORNISH: ...What of the story are we hearing?

MCBRIDE: One thing that's always been important to the history of black folks in America is the church, and Duke Ellington also wrote a lot of sacred music. So I think "Come Sunday" was his - that was his musical portrait of what the Gospel meant to the African-American community.

CORNISH: I guess it's fitting then that, you know, some 15 years later, there is a new recording of this song. And he brings on Mahalia Jackson.

MCBRIDE: Yes, a titan and a titan together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME SUNDAY")

MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) Oh, dear Lord above, God almighty, god of love, please look down and see my people through.

MCBRIDE: In 1958, when this album was recorded, I think it's safe to say that there was no more powerful a voice in the gospel world than Mahalia Jackson. And, you know, there was a contingent of gospel artists or church people who still thought jazz is secular music, it's music that is not of the church.

So I think it says something to the power and majesty of Duke Ellington's musicality to be able to have this singular artist of a another so-called genre to say, I don't usually do this, but this music is so powerful, I want to help further this artistry, this majesty of this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME SUNDAY")

JACKSON: (Singing) Come Sunday, oh, come Sunday. That's the day.

CORNISH: The next decade saw this explosion of music that did address political and racial issues in America - right? - heading into the '60s. "A Change Is Gonna Come" - Sam Cooke, or "We Shall Overcome" became an anthem of the civil rights movement.

MCBRIDE: Yes.

CORNISH: So where did "Black, Brown & Beige" fit into this new politically charged musical landscape - or was it forgotten?

MCBRIDE: No, I don't think it was forgotten, but I believe the message got much more visceral. It's interesting because also that same year you had Sonny Rollins, who recorded the "Freedom Suite." In 1960, you had Max Roach recording "We Insist! The Freedom Now Suite" (ph).

So there was a younger generation that was much more direct in their message. Duke Ellington tended to use metaphor. He always had this singular way of filtering the joys, the pains, the sorrows, the tribulations through a musical lens of hope.

There was not one facet of African-American culture that Duke did not embrace. His music was sort of the medicine for the cancer of racism and discrimination. I think for that reason, if hope is always going to be a factor in life, then Duke Ellington's music will always be relevant.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON AND HIS ORCHESTRA'S "BLACK, BROWN AND BEIGE")

CORNISH: That is bassist, composer and host of NPR's Jazz Night In America, Christian McBride. Christian, thank you so much for talking about this song with us.

MCBRIDE: Audie, it's always a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON AND HIS ORCHESTRA'S "BLACK, BROWN AND BEIGE")

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.