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History As Symphony: The African-American Experience In Jazz Suites

Detail from the original cover art to Duke Ellington's <em></em>1944 studio recording <em>Black, Brown and Beige</em>.
Courtesy of the artist
Detail from the original cover art to Duke Ellington's 1944 studio recording Black, Brown and Beige.

The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s inspired several black artists to explore their African heritage and the black experience in America, from enslavement to life after emancipation and migration to cities in the north. In the musical world, pianist James P. Johnson composed Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody, a 12-minute portrait of a black community in Savannah, Ga. Yamekraw was orchestrated for a 1928 performance at Carnegie Hall by black composer William Grant Still, who would write his own Afro American Symphony in 1930.

Since then, many more African-American artists have employed the expansive concepts of suites, symphonies and extended works to render the saga of black life from Africa to America. Here are excerpts from five extended jazz representations of black history.

History As Symphony: The African-American Experience In Jazz Suites

Duke Ellington

"Three Dances: West Indian Dance/Emancipation Celebration/Sugar ..."

From 'Black, Brown and Beige [RCA Box]'

In 1931, Duke Ellington told a reporter, "I'm going to compose a musical evolution of the Negro race." The resulting Black, Brown and Beige: a Tone Parallel to the History of the Negro in America, which made its debut at Carnegie Hall in 1943, is an inaugural musical monument in the genre of extended jazz works. Ellington had been building toward it for years, writing longer pieces such as "Reminiscing in Tempo" in 1935 and the musical revue Jump for Joy in 1941, and laboring throughout the 1930s on an eventually abandoned "negro opera" called Boola. Although white establishment critics were infamously cool in their reception to Ellington's 43-minute work, simply presenting a piece of such scope in a venue like Carnegie amounted to a radical act of black pride: a declaration that the life, history and identity of African-Americans were equal in significance to their white counterparts.

"West Indian Dance," "Emancipation Celebration," and "Sugar Hill Penthouse" were three short pieces that Ellington recorded in 1944 as part of the first studio recording of the suite. "West Indian Dance" represented the influence of black slaves and laborers from the Caribbean region; "Emancipation Celebration" reflected the feelings of slaves upon gaining their freedom after the Civil War; and "Sugar Hill Penthouse" depicted the relatively affluent life of some African-Americans in a part of 20th-century Harlem.

Oliver Nelson


From 'Afro-American Sketches'

Nearly 20 years after Duke Ellington introduced Black, Brown and Beige, saxophonist and composer Oliver Nelson wrote and recorded Afro/American Sketches. Unlike Ellington, Nelson initially took on his project reluctantly, after a record-label representative suggested it to him. In the liner notes to the record, he wrote that he was "put off" by what he perceived to be a lack of honesty in Afro-jazz records of the times, and thought himself unqualified to write such a work. But he immersed himself in studies of African music to write the early parts of the suite, and drew upon his own big-band experiences for composing the parts that reflected black life in America. "Disillusioned" invokes the disappointed-but-persevering destiny of Southern black people who had moved to Northern cities during the large-scale migration of the early 20th century.

John Carter

"Juba's Run"

From 'Fields'

An artist whose origins are associated with the 1960s free-jazz movement, clarinetist John Carter went on to write an extended musical history of the African-American experience in a five-album suite. Carter called his work Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music. "What the African brought with him gave way to the blues, church music, jazz, rock and all forms of American music," Carter said, "and I wanted to contribute some musical thoughts of my own in an artistic, historical way." Critic Gary Giddins calls Roots and Folklore "a capacious vision of America's motley musical history." Describing the obstacles jazz artists of the 1980s faced in gaining record-company support for large-orchestral and innovative projects, Giddins says, "Carter solved the first problem by voicing his musicians in such a way as to suggest a larger group, and the second by refusing to accept the idea that, by virtue of recording, he is in the business of producing marketable product." "Juba's Run," from the work's penultimate album Fields, is a frantic and passionately determined Eric Dolphy-esque depiction of a slave's attempted flight to freedom.

Wynton Marsalis (And The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra)

<em>Blood on the Fields </em>cover art
Blood on the Fields cover art

"Work Song (Blood on the Fields)"

From 'Blood on the Fields'

Unlike John Carter, trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis has had a high-profile and controversial career, ever since his emergence in the early 1980s. In the 1'90s, Marsalis added his own African-American historical opus to the canon of extended works with Blood on the Fields, a 3-CD recording that tells the story of a slave couple's journey to freedom. Although his recording of Blood on the Fields earned him the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded to a jazz musician, it received mixed reviews from jazz critics; Gary Giddins called it "an exercise in unqualified hubris, a discursive pastiche in which a broad range of influences is welded but not integrated, ingested but not digested." As with all things Marsalis, jazz history may ultimately render a kinder verdict on an ambitious and musically comprehensive portrait of early black life and culture in America. "Work Song," featuring the vocals of Cassandra Wilson and Miles Griffith, is one of Blood on the Fields' most immediately accessible pieces.

Wadada Leo Smith

<em>Ten Freedom Summers </em>cover art
Ten Freedom Summers cover art

"Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days"

From 'Ten Freedom Summers'

Trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith says that Ten Freedom Summers, a 4-CD musical tribute to the Civil Rights Movement, was 34 years in the making. He cites Duke Ellington's sacred concerts and Max Roach's politically oriented albums such as Freedom Now and Lift Every Voice and Sing as inspirations, though the imprint of Miles Davis' concept albums with Gil Evans and the trumpeter's electric era can also be heard at times. "Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 381 Days" is framed by lyrical playing that summons the quiet, noble and heroic significance of one black woman's act of protest, with a middle section that reflects the turmoil, difficulties and uncertainty of the year-long effort to end segregated seating on Montgomery, Ala., city buses. The ultimately successful endeavor set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s in the U.S.

Copyright 2013 WFIU

David Brent Johnson is the host of Afterglow and Night Lights. An Indianapolis native and IU alumnus, David began his radio career at Bloomington community radio station WFHB, where he hosted the weekly jazz program All That Jazz. A writer who’s published frequently in Bloom Magazine, The Ryder, the Bloomington Independent, and Indianapolis Nuvo, he has won two Society of Professional Journalists awards for his arts writing.