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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.

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.