Friday, December 27, 2013

Duke Ellington's Black And Tan Fantasy: Gunther Schuller's Insights

Gunther Schuller discusses this tune in some depth (bear in mind that his comments concern the 1927 recordings, but Duke did not make substantial changes to this chart over the years, so most of what Schuller has to say applies even to Ellington's most late-era recordings of Black and Tan Fantasy): Black and Tan Fantasy . . . gives further evidence of the difference in artistic levels at that time [1927] between [Bubber] Miley and Ellington. The piece consists of Miley's twelve-bar theme based on the classic blues progression (Roger Pryor Dodge explains that the melody of Black and Tan Fantasy is a transmutation of part of a sacred song by Stephen Adams that Bubber's sister used to sing), three choruses on the same (two by Miley, one by Nanton), an arranged ensemble passage, a twelve-bar Ellington piano solo, and finally a recapitulation with the famous tagged-on Chopin Funeral March ending. Of these segments only two can be attributed to Ellington, and they are not only the weakest by far but are quite out of character with the rest of the record. Whereas Miley's theme, his solos—and to a lesser degree Nanton's—again reflect an unadorned pure classicism, Ellington's two contributions derive from the world of slick trying-to-be-modern show music.

. . .

“A comparison of the three 1927 recordings of Black and Tan Fantasy again shows that over a seven-month span the 'improvised' solos changed very little. Even when Jabbo Smith substitutes for Miley on the Okeh version, the over-all shape and tenor of the trumpet part do not change drastically, though in terms of particulars Jabbo's rich sound and loose way of playing make this performance even more of a fantasy. (In a still later (1930) recording of Black and Tan Fantasy, Cootie Williams also adheres to the original Miley choruses.) Miley's solo on the Victor version is one of his most striking recorded performances. It makes brilliant use of the plunger mute and the growl; but it is, to our ears, forty years later, especially startling in its abundant use of the blue notes, notably the flat fifth in the first bar of the second chorus. It is also a highly dramatic solo, equal to anything achieved up to that time by the New Orleans trumpet men. And perhaps none of them ever achieved the extraordinary contrast produced by the intense stillness of the four-bar-long high b flat, suddenly erupting, as if unable to contain itself any longer, into a magnificently structured melodic creation.

“[Regarding] Johnny Dunn's influence upon Miley. The latter's solo on Black and Tan Fantasy is an excellent case in point. Both the triplet run in measure nine and the use of a plunger mute were basic elements of Dunn's style, as can be heard on his 1923 recordings of Dunn's Cornet Blues and You've Never Heard the Blues.”

(Gunther Schuller, Early Jazz 329-31).

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