Home / Jazz Workshop: Listening Guide to Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige – Part 3, “Beige”

Jazz Workshop: Listening Guide to Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige – Part 3, “Beige”

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I was ready to give up on this series at one point, certain that nobody was reading and that I was doing this only for myself. Then I discovered – oh, happiness! – that some online Ellington enthusiasts had discovered my first and second installments and enjoyed them, even told me they were looking forward to the third. Not only has it been encouraging, but it's made me consider the prospect of a fourth part – perhaps a more critical analysis of Ellington's Black, Brown, and Beige to go with this technical analysis.

Before that, though, we've got to get through the listening guide for the third movement, "Beige." This is the most difficult part of Ellington's piece: not only is it the most structurally dense, but it's the movement that Ellington tinkered with the most, removing certain unifying elements (even some sections, such as the interlude and the "Black, Brown, and Beige are Red, White, and Blue" section, which was a bit of wartime sentiment that Ellington deleted after WW2) and changing names.

The names are a particularly maddening element. For example, the liner notes to the Carnegie Hall performance say that the waltz piece here labeled "Creamy Brown" (aka "Cy Runs Rock Waltz," the name Ellington used for the section in the '50s and '60s) was alternately titled "Sugar Hill Penthouse" – but later references identify the later theme-and-variations section of the movement as "Sugar Hill Penthouse."

Thus, there may be some confusion, but I've used the various references to name these segments with as much clarity as possible. It's hard to say just how accurate they are, though. If anyone has something that might help, please let me know.

Once again, times and performance details are for the January 23, 1943 Carnegie Hall performance, as recorded on The Duke Ellington Carnegie Hall Concerts: January 1943 (Prestige).


III – Beige

(0:00 – 0:52)
Duke Ellington’s Spoken Intro.

i. Interlude
Trumpets and clarinets blast with trombones and saxes underscoring, stomping march rhythm. trumpets and clarinets continue for 14 bars; at 1:14 trombones and saxes turnaround and take 4-bar passage.

Trumpets and clarinets return for four bars of riffing, then trombones &
saxes make transition to repeat of the 4-bar passage, which spirals down to
nadir (with horns) at 1:42.

Piano (Ellington) glissandos up and down, plays four-note segue, then
begins stride piano tune in G minor. Starts slow, gradually increases tempo after 8 bars to full “boogie” speed (sounds like Ellington’s mentor, Willie “The Lion” Smith). Another eight bars of fast playing, then sudden brake to deathly slow, heavy pace.

Reeds play slow, four-note requiem phrase, then repeat twice. 2:37 – Reeds switch to accompaniment for piano, which plays slow, sad meditations until glissando transitions to

ii. Creamy Brown (aka “Cy Runs Rock Waltz”)
8-bar waltz intro by reeds (last two bars sotto voce), with trumpet (Harold
Baker) entering at 3:12 for main melody (32-bar AABA song form).

Modulation: reeds in background, with plunger-muted trumpets on top. At 3:55 a plunger trumpet (Stewart?) plays a transitional variation on main melody, followed at 4:04 by a piano variation, then four-bar turnaround by horns (4:09).

Trombone (Lawrence Brown) restates main melody in new key.

iii. Beige

Baker plays slow four-bar intro, full orchestra punctuating with odd
Rhythmic accents.

Baker restates opening of “Creamy Brown” melody in 4/4, then launches into ostinato variation with full orchestra responding (horns on top).

Tenor saxophone (Ben Webster) enters, plays transitory passage to modulate into new key.

Webster leads orchestra into new theme, another waltz; by bar 5 (5:44) Webster is subsumed into full reed section.

Reeds jump into swing syncopation; horns enter at 6:00.

Orchestra goes stop-time behind alto saxophone (Otto Hardwicke) for coda, winding upwards to a close from 7:19-7:22, when piano takes over without pause.

iv. Sugar Hill Penthouse
Ellington plays quick piano flourish, then four walking bars of intro.

Clarinet (Harry Carney) begins playful, relaxed, 16-bar theme with reeds accompanying.

Carney moves to higher register and plays 8-bar Variation 1 on previous theme. Horns enter at 8:25 and make assertive 4-bar statement.

Carney returns for Variation 2. His final six notes are echoed by very low piano.

Reeds and horns play very, very soft turnaround.

Saxophones restate main theme, horns punctuating, until trombones and clarinets resurface at 9:23 and finish the theme.

Trombone and saxophone (?) play sotto voce duet on Variation 3 of main theme, horns playing obbligato.

Reeds join for modulation and turnaround, with return to theme signaled by muffled gong sound.

Full reed section plays Variation 4, in new key, fading down at 11:08.

Horns play upbeat, march-like statement that slows, crests again into
fanfare, then at 11:29 melts into modulating piano passage.

Alto saxophone (Johnny Hodges) recapitulates original “Come Sunday”

Rex Stewart, barely audible at first but then more forceful, with high-note
cornet embellishment over resolving piano—capped by bell at 12:16.

v. The Black, Brown, and Beige are Red, White, and Blue
Piano picks up speed, winding gradually up to

Charging theme led by horns, with upbeat military motifs, trumpets over
trombones for 28 bars.

Trombones play 10-note stepdown, trumpets sound a sennet, then at 13:29
full orchestra shifts into Glenn Miller-style swing, with solo piano interpolating at 13:34 and 13:42.

Orchestra re-enters and segues into uptempo, horn-driven variation on
“Come Sunday” (13:48); at 14:09, cornet (Rex Stewart) plays Armstrongian high-note statements whose peak marks the end of the piece.

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About Michael J. West