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Sarah Foster

Duke Ellington Research Paper


Duke Ellington (1899-1974), a unique composer, not only composed over a thousand
works of art, but he did so with specific performers in mind, much like Bach, writing for his
Leipzig church musicians. Ellington even went to such lengths as to often remove compositions
from his repertoire that featured certain soloists that had left the band. Ellington's trombone
players were some of the best, each with very colorful backgrounds, and they are featured quite
frequently in his famous composition, Black, Brown, and Beige, a piece "that would represent a
tone parallel to the history of the American Negro."1 Ellington composed parts for his
trombonists' talent, as he was accustomed to. He featured the characteristic sound of Joe "Tricky
Sam" Nanton in the first movement of this piece, demonstrating the full creative capabilities of
the trombone player, including the use of the plunger mute, "ya," "wa," and growls. Ellington
composed the intricate parts in Black, Brown, and Beige for very specific players in his band at
the time, and their playing brought significant color and culture to the piece and to the world of
jazz.
Jazz trombone all started with the tailgate "Dixieland" trombonists, such as Edward "Kid" Ory
and Miff Mole. Dixieland was the first style of music to be considered jazz, originating in New
Orleans as an upbeat dance advertised through marching in parades. The role of the trombone in
this type of music was to outline the chords in a bass line setting or to provide a countermelody
to other instruments. The trombone's unique contribution lay in the effects characteristic to the
slide trombone, such as its big, brassy sound, growls, and flaring glissandos. This dance

1 Wolfram Knauer. "'Simulated Improvisation' in Duke Ellington's Black, Brown, and Beige."
The Black Perspective in Music, Volume 18, No. 1/2, (1990), 21.

eventually developed into swing, beginning in the early 1930's.2 This jazzier genre is where Duke
Ellington's stylings come into play.
Growing up in Washington D.C. and making his home in New York City, Duke Ellington was
able to work closely with many big bands and musicians that would later impact him and
influence the sound of his band. He and a group of friends threw together Ellington's first big
band in D.C., The Washingtonians, and eventually relocated to New York City. After all, "New
York is a dream of a song, a feeling of aliveness, a rush and flow of vitality that pulses like the
giant heartbeat of all humanity."3 The best of the best took up residence in the buzzing city, and
there was no shortage of great talent. Ellington could not have picked a better place to find
immense opportunity, potential, and growth. At first, The Washingtonians weren't much more
than a couple pianists, vocalists, and composers, such as Dr. Billy Taylor, Jelly Roll Morton, and
Oliver "Doc" Perry4. When the band first started performing, the roaring jazz style of New
Orleans just didn't exist yet. There was a call for a more mellowed out, polished dance groove at
the time.5 Then, Ellington heard the sounds of Sidney Bechet's wailing saxophone, and he was
inspired to collect similar big band musicians. In 1926, The Washingtonians became known as
"Duke Ellington and His Orchestra" with the arrival of trumpet player, James Bubber Miley
(1903-1932), bari sax player, Harry Carney (1910-1974), and trombone player, Joe "Tricky Sam"
2 David M. Wilken, "The Historical Evolution of the Jazz Trombone: Part One." Online
Trombone Journal (1996-2013).
3 Edward Kennedy Ellington. Music is my Mistress. (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1976), 65.
4 "Notable Black Washingtonians." PBS. PBS, Web.
5 Claudia Roth Pierpont. "Black, Brown, and Beige: Duke Ellington's Music and Race in
America." The New Yorker. (New York, New York: 2010).

Nanton (1904-1956), all following shortly after the departure of banjoist, Elmer Snowden.6 This
finally gave the band a new kind of jazz sound, a "jungle sound," 7 so to speak. Fletcher
Henderson, a Georgia-born composer, pianist, and bandleader,8 also influenced Ellington's desire
for the "right" sound. The two met under some rather unusual circumstances regarding a
progressively violent showdown at Ellington's gig one night. They hit it off and became very
close friends. Ellington saw Henderson as a man of good taste. "His was the band I always
wanted mine to sound like when I got ready to have a big band..."9
Puerto Rican trombone player, Juan Tizol (1900-1984), was another great inspiration to Ellington
and was a fantastic example of the musical talent that was often found in his band. Juan grew up
in Puerto Rico and crossed paths with Ellington in his hometown of Washington D.C. in about
1920. Tizol was a valve trombone player, although he spent a great deal of time studying and
mastering almost every other instrument, as well. Using a valve trombone provided two
significant advantages over the slide trombone- notes could be played faster, and it made it more
difficult to fake notes from the written melody.10 Tizol did not start out with Ellington, however,
but jumped around between different clubs and gigs all around Washington D.C. and New York.
6 "Duke Ellington: A Natural Leader." Duke Ellington: A Natural Leader. Soundjunction,
accessed May 12th, 2014, 2-4.
7 "Duke Ellington: A Natural Leader." Duke Ellington: A Natural Leader. Soundjunction,
accessed May 12th, 2014, 4.
8 "Fletcher Hamilton Hendersson Jr.," The Biography.com, (accessed May 12th, 2014).

9 Ellington (1976) 49.


10 Basilio Serrano. "Juan Tizol: His talents, his collaborators, his legacy." Centro Journal,
Volume XVIII, No. 11 (2006), 93.

He had been recruited by James Reese Europe, an African American band leader, who organized
the Harlem Hellfighters and was responsible for introducing the jazz genre to Europe.11 Tizol
jumped between a few other groups once he reached America, but eventually settled with Duke
Ellington and His Orchestra. He and Duke grew very close, and, although he had to leave the
band temporarily to care for his sick wife, Ellington always knew he could rely on him for open
ears and a warm meal. When the band was struggling after several members left at once, Tizol
went to the very distraught Ellington and promised him that he, Louis Bellson, Willie "The Lion"
Smith (another great inspiration to Ellington), and Harry James would join him on the road.12
Tizol's joining Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton in the trombone section brought the total number of
brass players in the band to five (3 trumpets and 2 trombones). This was significant for Ellington
because he now had to begin writing five parts for the brass instead of four, the significance
being that he now had to start thinking of the trombones and trumpets as two separate groups
instead of as a single unit.13 Tizol not only brought a second voice to the trombone section, but he
contributed greatly to the sound of several Latin tunes, such as "Perdido" and "Pyramid," the
styling of which were probably due to Tizol's cultural influence.14 In 1932, the section finally
filled out when Lawrence Brown (1907-1988) made his appearance. He contributed to the
section by covering most of the first parts that Ellington hoped for and by covering the ballads

11 Serrano (2006), 85.


12 Ellington (1976) 55.
13 Kurt R. Dietrich. Duke's 'Bones: Ellington's Great Trombonists. Advance Music, (1995), 5253.
14 Kurt Dietrich. "The Role of Trombones in Black, Brown and Beige." Black Music Research
Journal, Volume 13, No. 2, (1993), 112.

with his more lyrical, romantic style of playing.15 Brown was raised in Kansas by two very
musically-inclined parents. He went from playing violin to tuba until he happened upon a
trombone in an old church choir loft and began practicing it "feverishly."16 After moving to L.A.,
Brown snatched a spot in the Charlie Echols Band, and, soon after, moved to play for the Paul
Howard's Quality Serenaders for two years. It was Duke's band manager, Iriving Mills, who
heard Brown play and recommended him to Ellington. After giving his notice for quitting the
Serenaders in 1932, Lawrence finally came to join Duke Ellington and His Orchestra.17 Before
either Tizol or Brown came to join the band, however, Joe Nanton was Ellington's first and only
trombone for several years, making him an essential voice in Ellington's recordings.18 Before
Ellington's band, Nanton had also hopped from band to band, gig to gig, playing here and there
but never really making his debut until 1926 when he was featured on his first recording with
Ellington. He was an asset to the group for a good 20 years before passing away shortly after an
unfortunate stroke, but his time with the band was well-spent. He contributed the unique sound
of the plunger mute after hearing trumpet player, Johnny Dunn performing with one of his own.
His mastering of the plunger mute, growl, and "wa-wa" sounds earned him the nickname Joe
"Tricky Sam" Nanton, "always doing with one hand what someone else did with two."19 The
"wa" sound was produced by holding the plunger up to the bell of the trombone and then
15 Dietrich (1993), 112.
16 Alex W. Rodriguez. "Lawrence Brown" Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians (accessed May 13th,
2014).
17 Rodriquez (accessed May 13th, 2014).
18 Dietrich (1993), 111.
19 Dietrich (1995), 21.

opening up the bell by moving the plunger away from it. The "ya" sound, uniquely characteristic
of Nanton, was produced by combining two sounds- "ee" and "ah."20 This is done by physically
sounding out the syllables with the mouth.
The perfected combination of these techniques is demonstrated fabulously in the first movement,
Black of Ellington's Black, Brown, and Beige.21 Ellington first began working on the multimovement symphony in late 1942, a little too close to the premiere performance at Carnegie Hall
the following January 23rd. The intention of the piece was to reflect on the sad but powerful
history of the African American journeys and hardships in the America. The piece was apparently
based off of a 39-page typescript found in Ellington's possession that hinted towards possible
intentions of writing an opera retelling the story of a slave named Boola. The opera was never
completed, but the story is believed to be Ellington's biggest inspiration for composing Black,
Brown, and Beige.22 The first movement, Black, was made up of three sub-sections, "Work
Song," "Come Sunday," and "Light." The first section, "Work Song," is all about the droning of
the bass drum signifying "impending doom,"23 and the call and response between the soloists and
the ensemble. The second section, "Light," features a trumpet soloist representing the longing,
moaning voice of the "Negro." This later transitions into an aura of complete happiness reflected
in the more up-beat tempo. Finally, "Come Sunday" takes a common church hymn and expands
20 Dietrich (1993), 116.
21 Dietrich (1995), 15-23.
22 Richard Wang. "Black, Brown, and Beige." Jazz Institute of Chicago. (Chicago, Illinois:
2003).
23 Sawyer A. Theriault. "Duke Ellington's Jazz Narrative on the African-American: Black
Brown and Beige." Student Pulse. Volume III, No. 6, (2011), 1.

upon it soulfully.24 Brown is also split into three different sections- "West Indian Influence,"
"Emancipation Celebration," and "The Blues." Beige is the movement least expanded upon,
compositionally and information-wise, possibly because Ellington was still working on it the
night before the premiere concert.25
The section in Black that features Nanton on trombone has become known as the Work Song, for
the reflective call and response between the band and Nanton beginning in measure 16 of
Nanton's solo.26 This occurs roughly six minutes into a recording of the first movement from the
original broadcast in 1993.27 Nanton actually makes the trombone "speak" using those
characteristic "ya" and "wa" syllables, contributing to the traditionally soulful call of the work
song. The range of the solo is outlined in just the first three measures, all the notes lying in the
higher range of the trombone.28 The interesting thing about his solo that has sparked some
controversy is that almost the entire solo in that section had been transcribed into Ellington's
score (with slight variations in a couple measures). The controversy lies in whether or not this
was Nanton's own creation, or Ellington's direction.29 Ellington was known for his extended use

24 Theriault, (2011), 1-2.


25 Garth Alper. " Black, Brown, and Beige: One Piece of Duke Ellington's Musical and Social Legacy." Journal of
the College Music Society. (Missoula, MT: 2012).

26 Dietrich (1995), 48.


27 Duke Ellington. Black, Brown, and Beige. Movement I: Black. Duke Ellington and His
Orchestra. Carnegie Hall (January 1943)
28 Dietrich (1993), 117.
29 Dietrich (1995), 40.

of "simulated improvisation," a technique that allowed musicians to perform seemingly


improvised solos that were actually pre-planned and written into their parts. Wolfram Knauer,
author of the article, "'Simulated Improvisation' in Duke Ellington's Black, Brown, and Beige."
seems to believe Nanton's solos in Work Song are all composed by Ellington. He has good reason
to believe this after listening to two different recordings, one mentioned earlier, and the other
found on Spotify, considering both solos are almost identical, style and all.30
Nanton's improvisation in Black was a good example of this concept. The recordings of his solo
hardly strayed too far from the written transcription that was found in Ellington's score. Although
Ellington had previously written out solos with individual musicians in mind, as is clearly
represented by the "musical atmosphere, sound-color, harmonic attitude, and sometimes a
rhythmic feeling"31 of his works, his composition of Black, Brown, and Beige took the solos to a
new level in terms of really making them sound improvised. Even listening to the recordings, I
could hear what sounded like thoughtful hesitation in the solo and when communicating with the
ensemble. Not only did Ellington do this for Nanton's solo in Work Song, but he also provided a
pre-composed baritone saxophone solo, as well, for Harry Carney. It appears as though Ellington
did this for the purpose of communicating specific themes and concepts to the listener. It gave
him full control over the outline of the piece. The bari sax solo, for example, offers a very
expressive variation of the original work song motif. It's a much slower, more singing, legato
variation of the motif. The solo combines a set of mediant and dominant relationships in short

30 Ellington, Carnegie Hall (1943); All That Jazz, Vol. 3, Duke Ellington Meets Louis
Armstrong, Black, Brown, and Beige. (1958, 1961 recordings).
31 Wolfram Knauer. "'Simulated Improvisation' in Duke Ellington's Black, Brown, and Beige."
The Black Perspective in Music, Volume 18, No. 1/2, (1990), 23

phrases to give it a more "balladic" feel, as Knauer describes it.32 Nanton's unique mastering of
the plunger mute and its embellishments gave Work Song its characteristic outline. His raw,
human-like "yah-yah" noises that develop throughout his solo make the motif real. Ellington had
not used pre-conceived solos in his compositions before Black, Brown, and Beige 33 Tizol also
took his turn in the simulated improvisation spotlight in the second section of Black.
The second section, "Come Sunday," opened with a beautiful solo variation by Tizol on "Come
Sunday." He was later joined by a solo violin, trumpet, and double bass.34 Tizol created the rich
color using his own characteristic style of playing, "straightforward, with little inflection...but
colored by his burnished tone and intense vibrato."35 A little ways into the piece, a quotation of
"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" can be heard in Tizol's solo, as well. I personally cannot find a
recording where the trombone is featured as Knauer has described because the piece is usually
performed featuring a female singer so that the powerful lyrics of the piece can be delivered
verbally.
Although it is not much, Brown also gets his chance towards the end of Black, the third section
known as "Light." He has his own small solo, as well as a quotation of "Come Sunday" towards
the end of the movement, embellished with glissandos and beautiful lyricism, as is characteristic
of Brown's playing.36 That's not it for Brown's soloing in the entire piece, however. He gets to
make a reappearance in the last movement, Beige.
32 Knauer (1990), 26.
33 Knauer (1990), 31.
34 Knauer (1990), 28.
35 Dietrich (1993), 120.

Brown's solo in Beige is rather difficult and demanding of the horn, but Brown tackles it with
ease, demonstrating his full capability as a player. He embellishes the lilting 3/4 melody with a
beautiful higher range and typical glissando style for 32 measures before handing off the piece to
the solo trumpet. To play the solo as lyrically as Brown did is difficult enough because of the
technical demands of the instrument. Legato tonguing for trombone is a little more complicated
than other instruments because valves can't be used to pop the sound up. It requires a very light
flick of the tongue to produce the effect that valved instruments are naturally capable of. This
technique, although it sounds simple, is fairly difficult to master to the point that Brown had.
What's very interesting about Brown's solo here is that it actually was not written in the score
like most of the other solos. We have no idea whether that was Ellington's intention or if it was
Brown's decision to take the solo somewhere else.37 As a section in Black, Brown, and Beige,
however, the trombone players' most important role was in reinforcing the harmonies.
After Brown joined the band in 1932, Ellington began composing triadically for the section, as in
assigning each member a chord tone, whether it was the root, third, and fifth or the third, fifth,
and seventh. This became the typical compositional style for the trombone section in order to
gain harmonic reinforcement in the band. In Black, Brown, and Beige, the section oscillates
between the assigned chord tones and playing in unison for a more powerful sound (like in the
beginning of the piece and in the opening of Beige). There is a little blues interlude in the
trombones in part of Brown, and, later, a small call and response section between the muted
trombones and the trumpets.38 The call and response occurs about 2:30 into the recording from
the premiere at Carnegie Hall. It also sounds like there's a small muted trombone solo about 5
36 Dietrich (1993), 121-122.
37 Dietrich (1993), 122-123.

minutes into the recording. By the stylistic "yah's," it's a safe bet that Nanton is soloing there. A
few times throughout the piece, a muted trombone-trumpet call and response duet pops up
(between them and the rest of the ensemble).39
There is no doubt that Ellington had a fantastic trombone section by 1932 when Brown joined
the band. He, Tizol, and Nanton rounded out the talent of the section by each contributing vastly
different sounds, characteristics, and styles to the playing of the trombone. The performance of
Black, Brown, and Beige exemplifies the diversity that the section brought to the overall sound of
the band, and Ellington's artistic use of that diversity. Ellington featured each in different
movements, demonstrating such a wide variety of techniques and styles in the solos Ellington
composed just for them. They played an integral part in the development of Ellington's early
band and became an asset to the group. Ellington knew he had a great section, and that was
greatly reflected in his impressive compositions. The early trombones of Duke Ellington's
orchestra made history and set a fantastic example of early jazz style for the rest of the world to
follow.

38 Dietrich (1993), 112-115.


39 Duke Ellington. Black Brown and Beige. Movement II: Brown. Duke Ellington and His
Orchestra. Carnegie Hall (1943).

Bibliography
Scholarly Sources:
Alper Garth. "Black, Brown, and Beige: One Piece of Duke Ellington's Musical and Social
Legacy." Journal of the College Music Society. Missoula, MT: The College Music Society, 2012.
Dietrich, Kurt R. Duke's 'Bones: Ellington's Great Trombonists. Advance Music, 1995.
Dietrich, Kurt. "The Role of Trombones in Black, Brown and Beige." Black Music Research
Journal, Volume 13, No. 2, 1993, 111-124.
"Duke Ellington: A Natural Leader." Duke Ellington: A Natural Leader. Soundjunction, accessed
May 12th, 2014.
Ellington, Edward Kennedy. Music is my Mistress. Da Capo Press, 1976.
"Fletcher Hamilton Hendersson Jr.," The Biography.com, website,
http://www.biography.com/people/fletcher-henderson-9334611 (accessed May 12th, 2014).
Knauer, Wolfram. "'Simulated Improvisation' in Duke Ellington's Black, Brown, and Beige." The
Black Perspective in Music, Volume 18, No. 1/2, 1990.
"Notable Black Washingtonians." PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 12 May 2014.
Pierpont, Claudia Roth. "Black, Brown, and Beige: Duke Ellington's Music and Race in
America." The New Yorker. New York, New York: Conde Nast, 2010.
Rodriguez, Alex W. "Lawrence Brown" Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians.
http://www.jazz.com/encyclopedia/brown-lawrence, Web accessed May 13th, 2014.
Serrano, Basilio. "Juan Tizol: His talents, his collaborators, his legacy." Centro Journal, Volume
XVIII, No. 11, 2006, 83-99.
Theriault Sawyer A.. "Duke Ellington's Jazz Narrative on the African-American: Black Brown
and Beige." Student Pulse. Volume III, No. 6, 2011, 1.

Wang, Richard. "Black, Brown, and Beige." Jazz Institute of Chicago. Chicago, Illionois: Jazz
Institute of Chicago, 2003.
Wilken, David M. "The Historical Evolution of the Jazz Trombone: Part One." Online Trombone
Journal, 1996-2013.

Recordings:
All That Jazz, Vol. 3, Duke Ellington Meets Louis Armstrong, Black, Brown, and Beige. (1958,
1961 recordings).
1-13 Black (First Movement of Black, Brown, and Beige).mp3 (Ellington, 1943)
2-01 Brown (Second Movement of Black, Brown, and Beige) [Live].mp3 (Ellington, 1943)
2-02 Beige (Third Movement of Black, Brown, and Beige) [Live].mp3 (Ellington, 1943)