Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Shadow Play: The Spiritual in Duke Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy"

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Shadow Play: The Spiritual in Duke Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy"

Article excerpt

On the Seventh Day, God created the spiritual. The Garden of Eden: a lawn outside an antebellum Southern white church, where a group of slaves has secretly gathered to hear a Sunday morning church service.

   Huddled there, they passed the Word of God around in whispers....
   Noiselessly ... they'd inch a bit closer.... When the great white voice
   inside rang out in Triumph ... the blacks outside would grunt subdued
   approval. When the whites inside lifted voices in joyous song ... the
   blacks outside would hum along, adding their own touches ... weaving
   melodic, harmonic, rhythmic patterns. Thus the spiritual was born. Highly
   emotional worshipping of God in SONG.

This creation story--spanning seven days from a mythic Monday to Sunday and featuring an Adam and Eve named Boola and Voola--comes from Duke Ellington's scenario for Black Brown and Beige, his "tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America: (Ellington n.d.).(1) As a divinely created song, the spiritual watches over that history. In Black Brown and Beige, Ellington's spiritual melody--the lucent "Come Sunday"--offers solace, chimes faith, and extols triumphs.

This glorification of the spiritual and the "tone parallel" recounting of African-American history furthered the ideals of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement that aimed to uplift blacks in American society by celebrating their artistic and historical achievements. During the Renaissance, the spiritual was lauded as one of the crowning achievements of the race. In his influential essay "Of the Sorrow Songs," W.E.B. Du Bois helped coronate the genre, presenting it as a noble voice of suffering, raised during slavery, that conveyed the sadness, hope, and faith expressed by its creators to following generations (1903, 250-264).(2) Du Bois's conception of the "sorrow songs" served as the Renaissance ideal of the genre and was musically realized in the performances of such singers as Paul Robeson and Roland Hayes and in the arrangements of J. Rosamond Johnson, among others. Notably, these versions largely eschewed folk practices, drawing instead on the vocal and compositional conventions of European concert idioms, an affiliation that enhanced the gravity and classicism that Du Bois ascribed to the genre (Radano 1995; Sundquist 1993, 525-539).

Although incorporating jazz styles, Ellington's evocation of the spiritual still paid homage to the sorrow song ideal with its suggestions of musical and historical transcendence. "Come Sunday," however, came late to the Renaissance veneration of the spiritual. Premiered in 1943, Black, Brown and Beige appeared almost a decade after that movement had died out, a lag resulting from the long gestation of the unprecedented work.(3) But Ellington had drawn upon spirituals before this, incorporating one into "Black and Tan Fantasy" during the late 1920s, the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance.(4) According to Bubber Miley, co-composer and a cornetist in Ellington's band, a spiritual inspired the main theme of the work (Dodge [1934] 1993, 108); however, as discussed below, that spiritual was not one of the treasured sorrow songs but rather a hybrid tune derived from a sacred song by a white composer.

Whatever its origins, Miley's spiritual is part of a mix of sacred and secular elements in "Black and Tan Fantasy," a variegated piece that blends the spiritual together with blues, contemporary urban jazz idioms, call-and-response patterns, and a Chopin quotation. This amalgam creates a variety of moods and sensations, including a broad satirizing of religious display. Behind the satire lies a less obvious irony, one that can be heard as targeting the sorrow songs. "Black and Tan Fantasy" presents an ironic reversal of those works and the musical and religious propriety that defined them. The jazz work does not treat its spiritual in such a pious manner; rather, it uses blues idioms to distort the melody. …

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