Black, Brown and Beige

The following is from Eric Zeilberg’s class presentation:

Duke Ellington’s magnum opus:



  • Duke Ellington
    • Composer, pianist, bandleader from 1923 onward
    • 50+ year career
    • Most famous compositions in jazz history
      • Take the A Train (Stayhorn)
      • Cottontail (Rhythm Changes)
      • It Don’t Mean a Thing, if it Ain’t Got That Swing
  • Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
    • Founded by Wynton Marsalis
    • Authority on “classic” jazz
    • Best imitator of Ellington

About BB & B:

  • Ellington’s biggest creation
  • Told the story of the “negro” and his plight throughout history
  • Only performed 3 times in its entirety
    • Critics found it’s form incoherent
    • Could not be judged by existing standards
    • Parts were separately re-released later
  • Split into 3 movements


Black: Work Song, Come Sunday, Light

Brown: West Indian Dance, Emancipation Celebration, The Blues

Beige: Interlude, Creamy Brown, Beige, Sugar Hill Penthouse, The Black, Brown, and Beige are Red, White, and Blue

Part 1: Black:

  • Work Song (1:30 – 4:00)
    • Low, repetitive drum and bass line
    • Chopping wood
  • Come Sunday
    • AAs standing outside of church, not being able to get in
  • Light (16:00 – 17:20)
    • AAs are freed from slavery, and see the light

Part 2: Brown:

  • West Indian Dance
    • Movement of slaves throughout various caribbean islands
  • Emancipation Celebration
    • Happiness from the passing of the emancipation proclamation
  • The Blues (29:20 – 30:40)
    • Segregation still exists

Part 3: Beige:

  • Roughest portion of the piece
    • Up night before composing it
  • Sugar Hill Penthouse (41:57 – 46:42)


  • Ellington introduced it at Carnegie Hall as “a parallel to the history of the Negro in America.”
  • It was Ellington’s longest and most ambitious composition
  • Mahalia Jackson sang “The Blues” when originally performed

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