Friday, December 27, 2013

Duke Ellington's Black And Tan Fantasy: Overview

The term “Black and Tan” has negative connotations dating back to the Irish War of Independence, when the “Black & Tans” were British members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, but when the term was also used to refer to the paramilitary Auxiliary Division troops who carried out many atrocities against the civilian population in retaliation for attacks by the Irish Republican Army. That said, however, this tune has nothing to do with Ireland. Instead, its title refers to a club that served both white and black patrons. This is one of Duke Ellington's oldest compositions, dating to 1927. Your arrangement is from the mid-1940's. Get out the plungers and start growling, trumpets, but this one also puts the baritone sax to the fore. The simple, repetitious sax backings behind the solos are some of the most recognizable blues licks ever written.

The liner notes to Black, Brown & Beige (The 1944-1946 RCA/Victor Recordings) say this about this particular version of the tune: “Recalling the jungle sounds Duke played in the 1920's during his tenure at the Cotton Club, this arrangement also offers a third view of an old piece. Third because on January 13, 1938, Duke recorded an extended version of this piece on two sides of a disc. Part I was the Prologue to Black And Tan Fantasy, part II, The New Black And Tan Fantasy. In his last extended solo on disc with the Ellington orchestra, 'Tricky Sam,' Joe Nanton remembers his old section mate, trumpeter-composer Bubber Miley (1903-1932) who made an artist's tool out of a toilet plunger. Harry Carney plays the second theme, which was originally assigned to Otto Hardwick.”

I would make a personal request on this tune—though certainly not a demand: If you happen to have a vocalist who is really and truly up to the task, this would be one heck of a tune to add a chorus or two of Bessie Smith-style coarse blues singing to. I realize that is a tall order for any high school vocalist; after all, Smith was singing from a very hard life that it is frankly almost impossible for most suburbanite high school musicians to relate to (the same can be said of the stylistically different Billie Holiday). If a vocalist does a poor job with this style, then it invariably comes across as condescending and slapdash at best, or racist and offensive at worst. But if one of this year's vocalists is willing to seriously study the Bessie Smith material in the Listening Lab (I recommend an outstanding 2-LP set of 1920s material by her, Bessie Smith: The Empress), a really solid chorus or two of dirty blues (the vocalist equivalent of plunger mute brass playing) would fit perfectly in this chart.
 Here are the Rehearsal Notes by David Berger from the Essentially Ellington score:
  • The pep section (trumpets 1 and 3 and trombone 2) should move in front of the band for letter A. The trombone should stay there for the entire piece since he solos from D to the end. Being in the front will enable them to play with completely closed plungers and still be heard. This is important – they have the melody.
  • The rhythm section needs to play with energy and forward motion throughout. Although the guitar, bass and drums mostly play quarter notes, it is essential for them to feel the underlying eighth note triplet even though they rarely play it. The piano, bass and drum parts should be learned. Then when the players understand the form sufficiently, they should play what they hear as good accompaniment to the ensemble (always keeping in mind the needs of the composition). Improvisational interplay in the rhythm section is an essential part of any jazz performance.
  • Although the recording features a baritone saxophone solo at B and C, I have notated the solo for the lead alto (which is how this arrangement was originally conceived). If you choose, you may give the solo to your baritone player. In any case, this should not be swung, but rather played with even eighth notes. This is the secondary melody of this piece and needs to be played as written or slightly paraphrased.
  • The trombone solo at D was a set piece for Tricky Sam, but the chord symbols have been included so that the player can improvise his own blues solo. Even if the trombonist elects to play his own solo, he/she should learn this classic blues chorus. Letter E should be played as is or paraphrased only slightly. This was Bubber Miley's solo and is part of the melody of this piece. Incidentally, Tricky Sam only plays three beats in the first and third measures of E. This sounds a bit strange, so I have restored these measures to their original 4/4 structure. These breaks at E must be played in time so that the punctuations on 4 of bars 2 and 4 feel absolutely natural. These ensemble responses should make the sound “WHOP.”
  • Dynamics are important. This is an understated, but swinging, piece.
Wynton Marsalis adds the following: “Duke Ellington's take on New Orleans' funereal music. It must be played with feelings of nostalgia and pathos. Feeling, soul, and intensity come together under the supervisory eye of a steady, march-like pulse. This arrangement can be opened up for solos, and is an excellent vehicle for the development of muted vocal techniques in the brass. Duke and the fellas sound like they had a little trouble with that call-and-response break at the end. But that's okay. That's life.”1

1A reed player of some note once pointed out to me that the Ellington recording of Anitra's Dance from The Peer Gynt Suite, which features a ludicrously acrobatic clarinet solo, was actually spliced so that Jimmy Hamilton's final flourish would come out right. The natural “hiss” heard behind the entire recording cuts out in the instant silence between the recording and its final one or two seconds, and the final second or two has a totally different “hiss” behind it. As Wynton says, that's life. Not even Duke Ellington and his men were perfect.

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