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In His Own Words

Ellington's Ode to Black History

By Harvey G. Cohen
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page B05

It was, as of that date, the biggest night of Duke Ellington's career. On Jan. 23, 1943, the Ellington orchestra appeared in its first concert at Carnegie Hall, before a racially mixed, celebrity-filled audience that included first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, conductor Leopold Stokowski, soprano Marian Anderson and poet Langston Hughes. Frank Sinatra came backstage on his break from the Paramount theater to wish the band well. In the weeks preceding, stories about the event had run prominently in Time, Look and other major publications; seats were sold out 12 days before the performance.

The highlight of the evening was the premiere of Ellington's longest extended work, the 45-minute "Black, Brown and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the History of the Negro in America" -- a composition in three movements meant to illustrate the story of black Americans, from their abduction from Africa to their role in World War II.

Class act: Whether at the Carnegie Hall premiere of his composition or in a jam session a few weeks earlier, Duke Ellington, right, turned elegance of style into a social statement. (Program Cover: Duke Ellington Collection, Archives Center, Nati)

The audience that night heard a wide-ranging work performed by one of the greatest big bands of all time, though "Black, Brown and Beige" did not have the standard big-band sound. The music most resembles jazz, and some of it is danceable, but the tempo changes freely and often, reflecting a sense of drama and purpose.

What the audience did not hear that night was Ellington's impassioned explanation of what this music was all about. They were unaware that Ellington had also written a verbal narrative -- a uniquely personal window into how he viewed black history and his role within it. This "scenario," as Ellington biographer John Edward Hasse later called it, lay unnoticed for years among Ellington's papers at the Smithsonian Institution Archives Center; it has never been published and was not even known publicly until the early 1990s, when it became available to researchers like me.

It is a fascinating, 39-page typescript, polished and sometimes poetic, and mostly written in free verse. It shows more sadness and frustration about race relations than Ellington normally exhibited -- and an earlier handwritten draft, also found in the Smithsonian's files, is sometimes angrier and more cynical in tone.

The "Black, Brown and Beige" scenario allows a rare glimpse behind Ellington's usual studied diplomacy and restraint -- providing evidence that while Ellington was reluctant to directly and openly challenge American racism, this suave, successful musician was using his celebrity status to bring issues of racial equality to a broader audience.

It suggests that Edward K. Ellington of Washington's Shaw neighborhood should be considered an important figure not only in American music, but in American history.

The scenario begins in Africa and focuses on a black Everyman whom Ellington calls Boola. Ellington's portrait of Africa differs vastly from the primitive picture drawn in the white media of his day, echoing instead the heroic tone of nonacademic black historians such as William Wells Brown and Frederick Douglass:

Buried in the dark, uneasy conscience of Man

Lies the bright and glorious Truth

About your heritage.

Two centuries of slavery are expressed in two main themes, the work song and the spiritual. Here the scenario does not dwell on the injustice or cruelty of slavery; instead the work songs focus on the character and fortitude that the experience built in black Americans:

Honest toil

Was not without reward. Had not this toil

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