In the late 1920s, Ellington’s career really took off under the savvy management of his agent Irving Mills. One of Mills’ most successful strategies in marketing Ellington was to present him as not just a popular bandleader but as a great American composer. We see this strategy brought to life in several short films featuring Ellington in the late 1920s and the 1930s. In these films, we see the programmatic stories implicit in Ellington’s compositions realized on film in a way that anticipates Michael Jackson’s Thriller and other extended length music videos in the 1980s.
Duke Ellington made his film debut 1929’s Black and Tan Fantasy along with co-star Fredi Washington. The film’s director, Dudley Murphy, was at the time known for the Avant Garde classic Ballet Mechanique (1924) and in 1929 also directed blues singer Bessie Smith’s film debut in St. Louis Blues. Black and Tan Fantasy is a fictionalized but pseudo-biographical story of Ellington as a struggling but brilliant Harlem composer seeking to use his new composition Black and Tan Fantasy to catapult him to stardom and lift him and his girlfriend, a star dancer played by Washington, from their status as starving artists. The film is also a “tragically ill heroine” story reminiscent of La Traviata and La Boheme as Washington has a heart condition that may kill her if she continues to dance. Out of financial need, she performs with Ellington’s band and collapses on stage. The film ends with Ellington playing Black and Tan fantasy for Washington on her death bed as the film’s plot is revealed to parallel Ellington’s composition, which ends with a quotation from Chopin’s funeral march.
The hit song “Stormy Weather” was first performed by Ethel Waters as part of a 1933 review in Harlem’s famous Cotton Club. The song is also prominently featured in the Ellington short film Bundle of Blues of the same year. Less a look at “Ellington the composer” than our other two films, Bundle of Blues offers viewers a look at a Harlem nightclub review. In this film, the presence of Ellington’s band as well as a set covered in palm leaves evoke the Cotton Club itself. Beginning with a brief performance of “Rockin’ in Rhythm” by the Ellington band, the film transitions to a window-side ballad rendition of “Stormy Weather” by singer Ivie Anderson (also famous for performing Ellington’s swing-era anthem “Don’t Mean a Thing”). Anderson’s performance, interspersed with pastoral images of the outdoors, anticipates Lena Horne’s more well-known “Stormy Weather” performance in the 1943 film of the same name.
In 1935’s Symphony in Black, directed by Fred Waller, Ellington’s status as a genius composer is emphasized even more strongly. As the film opens, we see a letter to Ellington, presumably from a commissioning patron, expressing anticipation for the successful completion of his “symphony of Negro moods.” As in Black and Tan Fantasy, we see Ellington at his piano working out the composition with pen and paper before the film seamlessly transitions to the work’s premiere as Ellington, now seated at a grand piano, directs an orchestra in concert formalwear. The remainder of the film moves between Ellington writing the piece, the premiere performance, and dramatized realizations of the symphony’s different sections including a vignette featuring legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday. The film’s racial uplift-driven trajectory from labor to urban nightlife to spiritual transcendence anticipates the narrative structure of his 1943 concert work Black, Brown, and Beige.
— Dr. Christopher J. Wells
Don’t miss Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert presented by Phoenix Chorale on November 12-13, 2016. Visit here for concert and special event information >
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