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Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige Revisited

Composer/arranger Randall Keith Horton returns the pianist's composition to the concert hall

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Audra McDonald - Duke Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige Revisited - JazzTimes
Audra McDonald sings the words of Ellington. Courtesy Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts

Black, Brown and Beige, the jewel of Duke Ellington’s extended jazz compositions, “is probably less heard [than] any musical work of comparable reputation,” wrote critic Gary Giddins in his 1977 treatise “In Search of Black, Brown and Beige.” But, he added, it wouldn’t realize its potential “until a conductor with as intransigent a vision as Ellington’s is commissioned to prepare [it] for performance. … So far, no one from the jazz or symphonic worlds has measured up.”

Those words represented a challenge for composer/arranger Randall Keith Horton, who had worked in 1973-74 as Ellington’s composing and conducting assistant (and later orchestrated and conducted his sacred music at the behest of Ellington’s sister Ruth). A colleague read Giddins’ article to Horton over the phone. “He said, ‘Randall, you should write the version of Black, Brown and Beige that Mr. Giddins is in search of,’” recalls Horton, now 79. “He said, ‘How do I go about getting you to do that?’”

That 1987 conversation began a 35-year odyssey, which finally culminated this January, when Horton’s orchestration saw publication after decades of delay and received its professional premiere at the new Steinmetz Hall in Orlando, Florida. (Its 1988 world premiere and a 1999 performance both featured amateur musicians.) It was a gala event with Britain’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, musicians from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the Bethune-Cookman Chorale, and singer/actress Audra McDonald.

The cover of Duke Ellington: The Notes the World Was Not Ready to Hear by Karen S. Barbara with Randall Keith Horton
The cover of Duke Ellington: The Notes the World Was Not Ready to Hear by Karen S. Barbara with Randall Keith Horton

The journey of both Horton and BB&B to that point has been documented by author Karen Barbera, in her new book (with Horton) Duke Ellington: The Notes the World Was Not Ready to Hear. “Duke Ellington did as much as Martin Luther King, Jr. did to elevate the image and position of African Americans,” Barbera says. “The book talks about that. But it’s also the story of Randall Horton, and this remarkable process that he undertook to bring this music to life.”

Ellington had been experimenting with long-form composition since the mid-1930s. But BB&B was something else again: a 45-minute piece in three movements, described by Ellington as “a tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America,” to be premiered at the country’s classical-music cathedral, Carnegie Hall. 

Yet that 1943 premiere was ill received. Writer Paul Bowles called it “formless and meaningless,” while John Hammond infamously accused Ellington of “deserting jazz.”

Ellington was stung. He didn’t abandon BB&B; he continued working with excerpts, one of which—“Come Sunday”—became a cornerstone of his legacy. Still, following a Boston Symphony Hall concert five days after the premiere, he never performed the full composition in public again. (An altered version, studio-recorded in 1965 for Ellington’s private collection, appeared in 1989.) After his death in 1974, it became renowned as his magnum opus; all the same, a few scattered attempts to revive it came to little.

Into this void stepped Horton, the last figure that Ellington personally chose to assist with his music. Mercer Ellington, Duke’s son, greenlighted the project and talked music publisher G. Schirmer, Inc., into commissioning it as a concerto grosso (a piece for a small orchestra—like a jazz big band—against a full-scale symphony orchestra). Even so, he insisted that Horton remain true to his father’s original composition.

“That scared me to death,” Horton recalls. “I was green. These are giants that I’m dealing with now. And I have to write this music for symphony orchestra, in a way that it blends with Ellington’s original big-band writing.”

Nevertheless, Horton got started. He worked from the original holograph lead sheet that Mercer Ellington had provided him, and drew on his experiences orchestrating for the San Francisco Symphony. But he ran into a dilemma: What to do with the additional material Ellington had prepared for his 1958 album of Black, Brown and Beige? That album was a truncation, limiting itself to the first (“Black”) movement. However, Ellington had written lyrics for “Come Sunday” and a new setting for the biblical 23rd Psalm, both sung by Mahalia Jackson. 

Horton’s solution? “I interpolated that music from the 1958 album, as a duet for male and female singers, into my orchestration of the third movement [“Beige,” singled out by the 1943 critics as particularly underdeveloped]. Those two songs provided the perfect conclusion to the composition. I got permission from Ruth and Mercer Ellington to do that, and they fit: They completed the form and the meaning of Black, Brown and Beige on the whole. And I have to tell you that I cannot help but think that Ellington knew that that was going to happen when he chose me!” 

The February 1988 premiere, performed in Sacramento by the Camellia Symphony, received a standing ovation and solid reviews, as did the 1999 performance in Dallas. Those, however, were the sole performances until 2022. G. Schirmer set arduous criteria to make Horton’s work acceptable for publication, demanding that his handwritten scoring of all the individual parts be redone (among other obstacles) and refusing to allow performance in the meantime. “It’s a crazy story!” says Barbera, who charts the process in her book. “You couldn’t make this stuff up.”

The January 26 Black, Brown and Beige performance in Orlando. Courtesy Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
The January 26 Black, Brown and Beige performance in Orlando. Courtesy Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts

After 34 years of red tape, it was at long last complete—in time for a January 26 professional premiere. (The program also included parts of Ellington’s three Sacred Concerts, the first of which is also centered around “Come Sunday.”) “We went to the premiere, and you knew you were in a moment of history,” Barbera says. “A large portion of the audience was Black, and it resonated with them.” 

With Edwin Outwater conducting, Horton took a seat in the audience, finally able to hear his own orchestrations in a relaxed, receptive context. “Everything just came alive,” he says. “It even took my breath away a little bit.”

For Horton, it comes as the vindication of a long and difficult effort. Both the published music and Barbera’s telling of his story have cemented his legacy. “I have no plans to die anytime soon,” he says with jocularity. “But if I do, all of this is on the record. So I’m all set.”

Learn more about Duke Ellington: The Notes the World Was Not Ready to Hear on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Walmart.

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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.