Duke Ellington at Carnegie Hall

American Symphony Orchestra Embraces the Lion

By: - Mar 31, 2022

Leave it to Leon Botstein, America’s great educator, to bring Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige to Carnegie Hall, where is premiered in 1943 as a fundraiser for the Russian war effort. (The world turns.) Eleanor Roosevelt, Marion Anderson and Langston Hughes were in attendance that evening. Now Botstein conducting is cool.  He often listens and taps his foot, slightly swaying to the improvisatory sections of works performed,  

Ellington had his moments in this country.  He is often lionized.  His sculpture stands in front of Schoenberg Hall on the University of California campus, a clear descendant of the formidable classical composer Arnold Schoenberg.  He is really more like Bach, the Bach performed over the years as  Classical Bach,  Romantic Bach,  and modern Bach. Yet Ellington is more like the Bach who wrote for individual musical talents  and was a master of improvisation.

His symphonic work is unique. It does not suggest jazz like many modern classical composers.  Some works are jazz, celebrating saxophone, trombone and percussion solos and often unleashed from formal constraints and free. Ellington‘s approach to programmatic expression in Black, Brown And Beige is fluid and dynamic. The musical and narrative relations feel improvised.  Yet Wynton Marsalis points out what a master of form Ellington is. In this work, we have a blueprint of meanings associated one with the other, like historical imagination itself. These meanings are changed, and can be transformed. 

Ellington had been writing a grand piece of musical theater tentatively titled Boola, which was never completed. Black Brown and Beige grew out of his musings on this work, a tone portrait of Negro life in America.  

Ellington himself once wrote, "For the music that I wanted to hear, it was a matter of hearing people working; bending over a washtub, humming, or just walking through the street in the dark, whistling; or maybe somebody playing a piano, or guitar or something... or you might hear a cat blowing the blues on a whistle on a train. This is all people's music. This is the kind of music when you ask them, say 'What was that?' And they say, 'Oh, nothing.'"

Duke Ellington made 'nothing' into something wonderful.

Jazz musicians were embedded in the orchestra. Marcus Roberts Trio performed inside the larger symphonic group and at the front of the stage, solo and as soloist. Marcus Robertson piano, Rodney Jordan bass, and Jason Marsalis drums.  Catherine Russell joined in vocals and gave us solo  Satin Doll from Sophisticated Lady. She has a lovely tone with dramatic inflections.

Harlem, premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1955, and is another of Ellington’s greatest masterpieces. The ASO captured the beat, the bass players particularly inspired..

Night Creature also premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1955, and this reprise rocked in a Marcus Roberts Quartet

Ellington’s second Carnegie Hall premiere, New-World A-Comin’ (1943). The stylish performance suggested an optimistic Ellington, portraying an ideal America, well before the dream has come true.

“Mood Indigo” (1930) became a signature nocturne piece that became a popular standard that was played at nearly all Ellington concerts for thirty years. 

“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got that Swing)” (1932), an Ellington standard which was performed at nearly every Ellington concert was sung with exuberance by Russell. Ellington once defined swing as “Harlem rhythm.”

The concert concluded with Three Black Kings (1974), Ellington’s last composition. Planned as a ballet celebrating the lives of  David, Solomon, and Martin Luther King, Ellington did not complete the work. 

Black Beige and Brown may have illustrated how infiltrators like Ellington had softened the enemy and made protest possible. 

The 1943 Carniegie events with corporate support and national media coverage began to shed a light on Black music and Black history.  Leon Bostein brought it back to life at Carnegie Hall.

We sometimes forget in the heat of this current moment, where impresarios seek young talent to put up on the stage to repay for past damage done, that great older artists have been there before. People like Woodie King, Jr. and Cleo Parker Robinson are alive today and ready to show the way, as Ellington did.