“I don’t need time – I need a deadline!” This quip has come down as Duke Ellington’s creative mantra. All business, all the time. It certainly shaped the official account of how his extended jazz suite Black, Brown, and Beige sprang to life. According to his published memoirs, his manager hatched the idea to stage a large piece at Carnegie Hall and within a month or so, it crackled from Ellington’s imagination like a bolt of lightning. But musicologist Mark Tucker has shown that the busy composer had been working on a piece exploring the themes of Black, Brown, and Beige since at least 1930.
By that time, Ellington had decided to narrate the history of African Americans in music. Many Harlem Renaissance artists, including poets and playwrights, had already created works tracing the flow of people in the African Diaspora to emancipation in the U.S. South and eventually to Harlem. Expressed artistically, this progression was meant to illustrate the profound humanity of African Americans across time. Composer William Grant Still had explored this idea in Africa (1928) and would continue to do so in his Afro-American Symphony. Ellington dabbled in this genre in Symphony in Black (1935), but a serious effort took another ten years to blossom.
“Come Sunday,” an excerpt from the original suite, strongly evokes the Black spiritual, both musically and emotionally. At its 1943 premiere, a violin and an alto saxophone presented the supremely tender melody (one in a highly embellished version, the other straightforward). Extracted from the suite, however, “Come Sunday” quickly became a jazz standard that any instrumental configuration could tackle. Mahalia Jackson later recorded a version with lyrics, and both versions now remain in the repertoire.
Conductor Arturo Toscanini commissioned Ellington to write Harlem as part of a grand suite about New York, but the project foundered, forcing Ellington to make it a standalone work. Conceived in the narrative vein of Black, Brown, and Beige, Harlem takes us on a tour of this city within a city, putting its rich multiethnic character, deep spirituality, and musical vibrance on full display. The opening notes in the trumpet signal a cry of “Harlem,” and this short motive becomes a source of melodic rumination as we walk through the bustling neighborhood. The second section pulls us rapidly into a mélange of dances reflecting Harlem’s Afro-Caribbean and African American cultural heritage. A third, somber section exposes the neighborhood’s introspective side and culminates in echoes of a New Orleans funeral procession. The entire piece closes with a strident coda.