Black, Brown, and Beige: The Implications for Composers


Each generation has their geniuses, individuals whose talents are beyond any explanation. Such was the case with Duke Ellington, a man determined to share his music without concern for the societal restrictions at the time. One particular piece has had, and continues to have, strong implications for composers of any genre. Black, Brown, and Beige was truly Ellington’s magnum opus, a piece that integrated genres of all sorts and was used to tell the story of African-Americans in America.  In this paper I intend to explore the macro and micro elements of Black, Brown, and Beige, such as form, rhythm, melodic and harmonic structures, with hopes of contributing to the already rich examples of analysis of this work. In doing so, I intend to show the compositional significance this piece has on composers of any genre.

The first movement, Black, is divided into three sections; “Work Song,” “Come Sunday,” and “Light.” “Work Song” utilizes an altered rondo form (ABACAD, with a coda substituting for another play through of the “A” section). This form leads to the first significant aspect of this piece for composers, namely that the rondo form is shown outside the constraints of classical and baroque music. Ellington is by and large a jazz composer, and utilizing rondo form in an unusual context allows for new possibilities in extended form composition. The main melodic theme indirectly mimics antiphonal singing (a trait present in numerous cultures from the African continent) through octave transposition. Since this movement is a story of African arrival in the United States by force, it is necessary to touch on not only the field hollars of slaves, but also the cultural ancestry of said slaves. The influence that this antiphonal technique has on composition is the idea of syncretism. While syncretism is quite common in 21st Century music, it was not so commonplace in Ellington’s time. The musical purism of the day required that composers write music that was only in the scope of the genre. Having specific musical styles present other than that of jazz is rather unique for the time period, as it showed Ellington’s willingness to attempt a progression of musical form. The second section, “Come Sunday” utilizes the form of AABA, which is commonplace in the Tin-Pan Alley music that Ellington often wrote, as well as jazz, pop, and rock. Ellington’s usage of a different form in the second section of Black shows the willingness to allow for dramatic contrast in his work. The third section in Black, “Light,” features not only the main melody, but also a reprisal in various sections of the main themes from “Work Song” and “Come Sunday.” This reprisal technique in melody writing goes back centuries, from the works of Ludwig van Beethoven to Johannes Brahms. This leads to a significant point with regards to Black, Brown, and Beige, in that, Ellington is attempting to draw the worlds of western classical and jazz together through this movement. These two musical genres are being show to have the ability to exist in harmony with one another, and composers ought to take note of this.

The second movement, Brown, consists of three segments; “West Indian Dance,” “Emancipation Celebration,” and “Mauve.” The compositional significance of the first movement is the overall feeling of a Caribbean influence (possibly countries such as Cuba, Jamaica, or Haiti). The reason for this is that this particular section is centered around the movement of slaves from the Caribbean, so Ellington wanted to draw on music that derived from African roots. The syncretism mentioned earlier is yet again at work here. This time, the Caribbean groove adds a certain force to the piece. The exigency with which slaves were forced from the Caribbean is the backdrop for the rhythm in the drums and the melody in the orchestra. This leads to the significance of this section for composers, in that the piece is utilizing syncretic music to evoke a certain aesthetic significance. The idea that two or more styles can be used to convey specific emotions is a revolutionary concept for composers. Usually composers have, in a syncretic piece, one type of aesthetic idea that they wish to convey. The truth is, syncretic music has the unique privilege of being able to bring to life the aesthetic, the philosophical, the metaphysical, and any other significant components to the human experience. The second segment to Brown, “Emancipation Celebration,” contains a theme that is critical to the progression of music composition. The topical content of “Emancipation Celebration” is the immediate emotions felt by slaves who had been freed under the ratification of the 13th Amendment. The theme is jubilant, and ultimately a personification of the positivity felt by the people who were “free at last.” There is specific value in this section for composers, namely in the area of melodic writing. Composers draw on many real life occurrences for inspiration, including historical events. The concept of drawing on historical events in modern instrumental music probably would not have been possible without Black, Brown, and Beige. Such ideas of historical pieces, sans libretto, are truly a unique concept. Consider the data, any major historically based work is either an embellished account (such as Julius Caesar in Egypt, HWV 17 by Handel), or is not solely instrumental. Granted in other sections of Black, Brown, and Beige contain spoken word elements, but the fact remains that the “Emancipation Celebration” section is an instrumentally based historical account of the emotions of slaves felt post-Emancipation. The final section, “Muave,” is a direct counterpoint to the previous section. Still a historical account, “Muave” utilizes a combination of spoken word and orchestral scoring to highlight the bleak future many freed slaves felt they would have post-Slavery. The realization that the racism was still ingrained in the minds of Americans caused many slaves to feel disheartened at their future prospects. Musically this section utilizes spoken word and instrumental music, a concept unheard of at the time. Many composers since this point have utilized this combination, most notably the composer Philip Glass in his landmark opera Einstein on the Beach. The idea that music and speech could be combined opened completely new avenues of inspiration for writers of songs. To think that poetry and music could be combined to further show emotions was unseen until Duke Ellington utilized the technique. As it stands in present day, artists from jazz such as Jason Moran with his song “Artists Ought to Be Writing” to punk rock bands like Pennywise in their song “Land of the Free?,” all have used the spoken word and music combination. Without Black, Brown, and Beige, I highly doubt this would be possible.

The final section, Beige, consists of the following sections; “Interlude,” “Creamy Brown,” “Beige,” “Sugar Hill Penthouse,” and “The Black, Brown, and Beige are Red, White, and Blue.” The section “Interlude” consists of two main rhythmic ideas. The first of these is a marching rhythm that is found most significantly in the part of the brass and woodwinds. The marching rhythm is not an abstract concept in music by any measure; however, it had yet to be seen in a major piece rooted in jazz until Ellington. The lesson for composers is one of intuition, of attempting to integrate rhythmic ideas that are alien to their style. Such is the case with most of modern music, as musicians such as Steve Vai, bands such as Tool, and composers such as Arnold Schoenberg have all utilized rhythms that are not normally seen in their genre (such as assymetrical meter in classical, or Indian taals in rock music). Arguably Ellington had an influence in such ideas, maybe not directly for the artists mentioned, but certainly the concept that alien rhythms have a place in all different music genres. The “Creamy Brown” section of Beige is of particular interest due to three elements, 1) A waltz prelude to the main theme, 2) a form in the main theme that is AABA, and 3) a modulation in the main theme. The waltz introduction attests to the previous ideas stated in this paper, in that, Ellington shows frequently in Black, Brown, and Beige his willingness to combine styles. In this case, Ellington is returning to western classical music, namely the music of Johann Strauss II (who is considered to be the most popular composer of waltz music). The form of the section shows Ellington’s push to reintegrate the jazz element to the extended composition. Ellington wishes to remind the audience that, despite the other components to this piece, Black, Brown, and Beige is first and foremost a jazz piece. The ability to transition fluidly is an invaluable skill for any composer to know, and one should take note as to how Ellington transitions from waltz to jazz in “Creamy Brown.” The final point of interest in this section is the modulation of the main theme to a new key. Modulation is not unique to Ellington, as composers of all genres have a history of placing motivic cells in new key signatures. The composer should still take note, however, as the modulation to a new key is an effortless one. Ellington moves the melody of “Creamy Brown” to an entirely new tonal center effortlessly, without a jarring chromatic succession of notes. Although the “Beige” section in Beige utilizes certain techniques found in the previous “Creamy Brown” section (such as waltz and modulation), there is one specific composition technique that is worth examining. As the section develops, there is a shifting ostinato pattern. The significance of this is that Ellington may very well be drawing yet again on syncretic music structure. The influence in this case is most likely West African (such as Nigerian Juju) or East African (such as Chopi Mbila music of Mozambique).  Since this piece draws on the influences and cultural history African-Americans have in various regions of the African continent, it is only logical for Ellington to draw on the music as well. The lesson for the composer is one of a complex nature. When writing a piece, one must consider the multifaceted nature of the subject matter, and respond accordingly. By Ellington drawing on the background musically of the black community, he is giving a map to composers as to how they must think about every single note they write, and the significance of their melody, harmony, and rhythm. The second-to-last section of Black, Brown, and Beige “, Sugar Hill Penthouse,” is important due to its pace. The section begins in a very relaxed groove in the woodwinds, and continuously remains in a relaxed groove (in all instruments) throughout the piece. The lesson to composers in this section is simple. Dynamics make or break a piece, and ultimately it is up to the composer to determine which dynamics are to be in a song. Namely in “Sugar Hill Penthouse” the composer is shown to need soft dynamics in any given moment. The tendency for composers is to overwrite, to write the piece in such forceful dynamics that the meaning of the song is lost. “Sugar Hill Penthouse” gives the composer insight into the idea that sometimes the softest dynamics and articulations are best. The final section in Beige, and in the composition Black, Brown, and Beige is “The Black, Brown, and Beige are Red, White, and Blue.” This section is a triumphant ending to an epic, a fitting conclusion to one of the landmark jazz works in all of history. The lesson to the composer in this section is to always make a memorable finale. The audience must walk away from a piece knowing that they had a transcendental connection with the music. Such is the case with the ending to Black, Brown, and Beige, as the orchestra navigates through recapitulations of prior themes, and eventually climaxes in the high notes of the trumpets. When the piece is finished, it is clear that this piece was Ellington’s crowning achievement, evidenced by its continued evidence today.

Hundreds of thousands of pages can be written about Duke Ellington the man, the composer, and the bandleader. While these pages will never truly encapsulate the man who changed everything in music, one can try, through his music, to understand him. For composers, it is essential that Duke Ellington is studied at his deepest levels, for his music can change their whole philosophy. Composers must be apt to progression, and Ellington’s music is a perfect place to begin such progression, for he changed music forever.

Work Cited

Howland, John. Ellington Uptown: Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, and the Birth of Concert Jazz. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009. Print.

Tucker, Mark. The Duke Ellington Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Print.

West, Michael J. “Jazz Workshop: Listening Guide to Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige – Part 1, “Black.” blogcritics. Blogcritics, 7 Nov. 2007. Web. 1 Mar. 2013.

West, Michael J. “Jazz Workshop: Listening Guide to Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige – Part 2, “Brown.” blogcritics. Blogcritics, 25 Nov. 2007. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.

West, Michael J. “Jazz Workshop: Listening Guide to Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige – Part 3, “Beige.” blogcritics. Blogcritics, 3 Dec. 2007. Web. 1 Mar. 2013


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