In 1943, Duke Ellington premiered Black, Brown and Beige at Carnegie Hall–and then never played the entire thing in public again. The first of his suites, it was also the most ambitious composition in jazz’s first half century, a 50-minute programmatic attempt to follow African-Americans from slave ship to the Harlem Renaissance. Ellington had high hopes for it, telling an interviewer that if the piece didn’t elicit “sincere interest and intellectual discernment,” its fate would be “a deterrent to the ambition of all progressing American composers.” But the critics reacted with antipathy: Paul Bowles called it “formless and meaningless,” “corny,” and “trite,” and most members of the overwhelmingly white critical establishment agreed. A chagrined Ellington mothballed the work, performing only parts of it–particularly “West Indian Dance” and the glorious “Come Sunday”–in the years to come. Of course, history has vindicated Black, Brown and Beige: it’s received increased attention since its composer’s death in ’74, including a performance by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra during last year’s Ellington centennial. Now the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, under trumpeter Jon Faddis, tackles the work on a program, called “Celebrating 100 Years of Genius,” that’s devoted to both Ellington and Louis Armstrong, whose centennial will arrive in 2001. The Armstrong material–including “Stardust,” “Swing That Music,” and “West End Blues”–could find no better friend than Faddis, who despite his bebop sensibility can still pinpoint the simpler but no less remarkable virtuosity of jazz’s first superstar. Bop tenor legend James Moody joins the group for some of the more modernist Ellington tunes, including “Take the Coltrane,” which Duke recorded with Moody contemporary John Coltrane in 1962. But the Carnegie Hall band itself is the real star: thanks to Faddis’s talent at humanizing and interpreting historical music–and a lineup that includes veteran saxists Frank Wess and Jerry Dodgion, young trumpeters Scott Wendholt and Greg Gisbert, and an especially strong trombone section–it outclasses every other repertory group in jazz. Friday, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Abbott.