Duke Ellington: Black and Tan Fantasy

I am a firm believer in the importance of contrast.  I have little place in my mind for people who seem to enjoy living on the fringes, enjoying only one partial bit of a complete observation.  We've talked about this before (I think), but how do we define happiness? What is happiness without sorrow? 

How can we understand a concept like daylight without starlight? Or twilight? Or moonlight? Or the difference between a sodium-vapor or metal-halide lamps?

Therein lies the contrasts.

The potential that exists between two or more states is how we as humans make rational comparisons. Unfortunately, this also means that we must sometimes explore that which is unpleasant, heinous or vile. Most importantly, in my humble opinion, we must avoid sugar-coating any of this, because the more we allow the passage of time to soften and dull the bite of that which is dire, the less verdent the opposing side of the spectrum becomes. We need the pain to enjoy the relief.  Without one, the other has no meaning.

It is with that preface that we being our exploration into what is quite possibly the most American of all the music we've explored this month, and that is of course Jazz.

Being a uniquely American artform, Jazz music was born of slaves brought from Africa to the United States in the mid to late 1800's through the early 1900's. As these Africans became acclimated to the society of turn of the century America, they began to meld their own musical traditions with that of the music scene in America, which was still heavily influenced by the strong European musical traditions. America became an isolated petri dish of sorts, where spores from Europe and Africa were allowed to mix and thrive together apart from the rest of the world.

This was before YouTube.

Which is important, because the vast majority of people in the continental US had a limited idea what was really going on in Europe on the pop culture scene and vice versa. News took months to travel by ship and prior to around 1870, commercially available recordings of music wasn't prevalent or even available to your typical American household, much less a slave on a cotton farm. Sure there was written music being shipped around, but in all reality in must have been slightly less than a complete vacuum compared to how music is shared across the pond today.

So, the Africans and the Americans were together in a society that was still trying to find its footing in a larger world. The Africans and their children and grandchildren, of course, were there primarily against their own accord, but they did what any good and honest people do when confronted with a situation of grave inequity.

They found a way to cope.
So combining the music of post-European America and Africa, Jazz began to emerge. It became, in many ways, a bridge that existed over and beyond racial confines. In many ways, it became a crutch to help the burgeoning sense of human equality rise above the shameful contrast of racial inequity.

Of those most revered figures within the developing Jazz community was none other than Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974).

How you doin'?

Duke was so named due to a early tendency to exhibit the personality traits of a nobleman, a dear childhood friend determined that it was necessary to give the esteemed Ellington a title befitting such behavior and he was thusly crowned, "Duke".

Duke never considered himself to be strictly a jazz composer, rather preferring to be a composer of American music. However, he pioneered many aspects of Jazz that are considered standard today and refined a particular sound, defined by his orchestra that performed regularly at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Duke pulled influence from a wealth of musical background and wrote countless pieces which are now firmly ingrained in the American psyche.  It's essentially a part of our DNA.

There are some really cheesy pictures of this concept online.
The piece in particular we will be exploring today is his "Black and Tan Fantasy".  Based on a spiritual, Black and Tan boasts a number of characteristic jazz ideology and "Dukism's" as well as a nod or two to the European forefathers.

It opens with a march-like piano introduction followed by solo cornet.  The theme then transitions from the sombre spiritual to a lighter, smoother saxophone lead and leaves behind the march-like stomp of the piano for a moment. After this it goes into a solo section and continues with the harmonic drive established during the saxophone lead. Growling brass and howling saxes punctuate the solo section as it returns to a head of sorts, which leads into a overly dramatic statement of the 3rd movement from Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor.  You might recognize it as the funeral march.

Duke had a knack for creating a sound beyond what most of us consider jazz. He was an ambassador for the arts and he shared that gift with the world. While researching Black and Tan Fantasy, I uncovered a gem of 1920's cinema which came about 2 or 3 years after the release of the original piece. Called, "Black and Tan", it's a short musical movie about Duke composing his "Fantasy" with cornettist James "Bubber" Miley.

His wife (in the film), Fredi Washington enters and hears them working on Black and Tan Fantasy.  Two guys show up to repossess Duke's piano, since they've had trouble booking gigs and he was behind on the payments.  Fredi bribes them with gin and they decided that it would be best to tell their boss that no one was home when they came to claim the piano.  Fredi eventually manages to get the band work, but at the cost of her performing along with them.  She was a dancer, but had a heart condition that forced her to avoid physical exertion and her doctor had cautioned her against dancing at all costs.  However, she takes one for the team, dances and ends up on her death bed as a result.

Apparently in the 1920's, when someone was dying it was appropriate to bring in an entire church choir as well as the Duke Ellington Orchestra to play while they proceeded to the next life. Fredi's last request was for Duke to play her the Black and Tan Fantasy.  Duke obliges and as they reach the Chopin statement at the finale, Fredi dramatically draws her last breath and we close on a weeping Duke Ellington. 

Still a better lovestory than Twilight.
Obviously, film making has made strides since the 20's, but the music that Ellington created is as relevant now as it was then.  So I invite you to listen to the Black and Tan Fantasy as they recorded with the full orchestra and then watch the film to see another angle of it.  I hope you enjoy, and go America!

See you next Friday.