Home / Jazz Workshop: Listening Guide to Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige – Part 1, “Black”

Jazz Workshop: Listening Guide to Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige – Part 1, “Black”

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Here begins a three-part experiment.

One semester in college, I took a class on Beethoven. We were required to purchase a specific set of CDs, most importantly the box set of all 9 symphonies as performed by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra (conducted by George Szell). The reason we were all required to have the same performances is that the professor had developed a set of listening guides. Using the timing of the Szell CDs, he had gone through and pointed out the structural aspects of the symphonies, where they modulated or shifted to another section, which instruments soloed or featured here and there, etc. Not only did this give us a profound insight into Beethoven's compositional style and techniques, but it allowed us a skeleton key into memorizing the actual music.

Indeed, one of the papers the professor assigned for the Beethoven class was the creation of our own listening guide for a piece he hadn't annotated, the second movement of the Seventh Symphony. Because of that project, I know the music and compositional structure of the piece better than any other in the Beethoven oeuvre.

A few months ago, wanting to have a better grip on Duke Ellington's extended composition Black, Brown, and Beige – the piece often hailed as his greatest – I found myself reflecting on Professor Bonds' listening guides. "Well, why not?" I figured… and constructed one for the first movement, "Black."

I'd like to finish up the listening guide for the other two movements as well, and this column gives me motivation and opportunity. So we'll start with what I've already got, the "Black" movement, which is itself divided into three sections, "Work Song," "Come Sunday," and "Light." I've noted the basic structure of each section.

If you'd like to follow along, times and performance details are for the January 23, 1943 Carnegie Hall performance, on the CD The Duke Ellington Carnegie Hall Concerts: January 1943 (Prestige). If you don't have the disc, look over this guide anyway: it's quite revealing of Ellington's brilliant command of melody and structure, both in the jazz and classical sense – and in the considerable overlap between them. If you've ever wondered why Ellington is such an enormously revered composer, perhaps this will help.


I. Black

(0:00 – 1:03)
Duke Ellington’s spoken intro.

i. "Work Song" (modified rondo form: ABACAD, with coda section replacing return to "A")

(A) Sonny Greer plays two-bar opening on tympani, then full band enters with march-like "Work Song" theme (2 bars), repeated three times.

(B) Reeds develop the theme in swing rhythm, at a walking pace; trumpets repeat “Work Song” theme at 1:42, slight variation in lower key at 1:45, modulating back into tonic at

Trombones restate “Work Song” theme, echoed by reeds (1:57) and
trumpets (1:59), then all sections riff until partial restatement by trumpets at 2:08

Restatement (minus first two notes) by trumpets leads back to the reeds' development/swing, this time much longer.

Muted unison note by horns.

Tympani returns for two bars (w/ tempo increase in second bar), then

Violent, dissonant blast by horns, spiraling
down to flatted bottom chord at 2:51; at 2:53 Violin (Ray Nance) plays four-note phrase, underscored by low horns. At (2:57) Tympani (Greer) strikes, then drums and bass (Junior Raglin) lead back to

(A) Repeat of initial “Work Song” theme, 3 times. (This rendering has stronger harmony statements on the horns).

(C) Baritone Sax (Harry Carney) enters solo, with echos of earlier reed development and quotes of "Work Song" theme. At 3:25 drums and horns softly re-enter as accompaniment and subsume Carney back into ensemble at 4:33. At 4:38 Trumpets reintroduce Carney, then punctuate his phrases until 4:48.

Winds play four-note, two-bar phrase, then repeat with trumpet interpolation (4:55),  followed by syncopated comping by full horn section (playing in the lowest register).

(A) Return to tympani and “Work Song” (5:03), 3 times, then

(D) Trumpet (Harold Baker) descending cadenza figure, re-ascending at 5:23 (with other horns punctuating) and again at 5:28, leading back into movement into swing passage (5:33) Trumpet, then trombone meld into reed-driven swing passage with high, muted
trombone (Tricky Sam Nanton) entering at 5:58.

Trombone solo begins with reed accompaniment, Carney counterpoint (diminuendo).

Nanton fades into ensemble, which modulates with ostinato rhythm.

(coda) Nanton re-enters in new chord for solo – opening phrase repeated 3 times, then conversational passing phrases until 7:29.

Secondary theme on trombone (solo), with variation by full orchestra at 7:45.

Trombone coda to secondary theme and eight-measure turnaround (8:07).

Restatement of secondary theme on trombone with reed accompaniment
and horn punctuation.

Reeds play diminuendo transition into “Come Sunday”


ii. Come Sunday (theme and variations)

(Church) bell sounds (with very, very soft accompaniment), repeated at
9:28, then at higher pitch at 9:31. At 9:34 the ensemble, barely audible, enters in the middle of the “Come Sunday” theme.

Trombone (Otto Hardwicke) enters, leading ensemble in “Come Sunday” theme; at 9:43, reeds and bells resolve into tonic with Hardwicke emerging at 9:48.

Trombone and bells play dissonant eight-note phrase, again resolved by
reeds at 9:59; then,

Reeds and trombone, in slow, meditative pace, modulate into new chord

Another trombone (Juan Tizol) plays “Come Sunday” theme, subsumed by reeds at 10:37.

(10:37) Reeds passage with same marching rhythm as "Work Song", with modulations; descent begins at 11:05 and spirals into

Violin solo (Ray Nance) with ensemble accompaniment, modulating again (Tizol variating the "Come Sunday" theme); pizzicato section 12:15-12:21.

Low piano note reintroduces horns, repeats, modulates into reed statement (12:34); piano returns to introduce alto sax.

Alto (Johnny Hodges) modulates again and begins first full AABA statement of “Come Sunday,” solo with spare accompaniment. B-section of “Come Sunday” at 13:54, return to A at 14:32.


iii. Light (quodlibet)

Trumpet (Harold Baker) plays lyrical, unaccompanied line fanfare that descends until 15:38; plays ascending fanfare phrase at 15:40-15:42; repeats and extends, 15:44-15:48; repeats twice more until ascending into high register and playing Armstrongian syncopated phrase at 16:00.

Horns respond; begins call-and-response between Baker and horn ensemble, with steady bass drum pounding (Greer). Baker plays a variation on “Work Song”'s secondary (coda) theme at 16:11; ensemble plays another at 16:13.

Horns crescendo with a riff, then immediately diminuendo with the same riff. Reeds pick up riff at 16:25; muted trumpet (Wallace Jones) punctuates with "Work Song" quote, then moves into improvisation at 16:34.

Reeds shift into accompaniment of horns, which play a theme based on the secondary “Work Song” theme.

Dissonant passage of ostinato swing rhythm, a transition that diminuendos into horn vamps against bass pulse.

Unaccompanied bass plays turnaround section of "Work Song" coda, with very soft response by horns at 17:27, 17:33, and 17:40.

Reeds begin punctuating, then softly pick up the turnaround theme at 17:55. (Horns respond with phrase based on main "Work Song" theme at 18:13)

Transitional phrase from reeds.

Quiet reed passage (with trombone (Lawrence Brown) underscoring), based on "Come Sunday" theme; Brown escapes from under the horns at 18:41 and plays languid solo with echoes of both "Come Sunday" and "Work Song" coda.

Transitional phrase from horns.

Trombone (Tizol?) plays "Come Sunday" A-theme with reeds accompanying; at 19:25, a response from the full reed section; at 19:33, a reprise of the main "Work Song" theme by the trumpets, with the trombones simultaneously playing "Come Sunday" underneath.

Unaccompanied, trumpets move into slower, less swinging rendition of "Work Song"'s B section, with reed accompaniment returning at 19:48.

Reeds interpolate variation on "Come Sunday" theme; horns punctuate at 20:09, and take over the melody statement, leading it back to "Work Song"'s B section (with reeds responding at 20:17 with a phrase that echoes Baker's cadenza from the D section). Ellington plays piano glissando at 20:23, and reeds resolve the melody.

Heavily syncopated reprise of main "Work Song" theme on trombone, with reeds on counterpoint; trumpets and clarinets play quick turnaround. At 20:49, the reeds reprise the secondary "Work Song" theme, this time with trumpets riffing underneath; reeds move to ostinato rhythm, playing passing phrases based on secondary "Work Song" theme.

Coda. Reeds, now at a full-on swing, transition out of "Work Song" and into upbeat riffs, horns accompanying; baritone (Carney) plays quick quote from secondary "Work Song," and horns quote main "Work Song" at 21:40. Ends on ascending two-note and stop.

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About Michael J. West

  • Rebecca

    I’ve always loved this piece; it’s great to be able to follow along and really think about the form instead of just listening to it. Thanks for the experience!

  • ronald Jooss

    This is phenomenol. Thank you so much!

    Ron Jooss

  • What a delight it is to come across your analyses of the first two movements of BB&B. I’ve linked to them and I’ve emailed the links to the Duke-LYM discussion list. Thank you for publishing your work.