My Pop Life #34 : Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody Of Negro Life – Duke Ellington with Billie Holiday

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Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life  –  Duke Ellington with Billie Holiday

…saddest tale on land or sea was when my man walked out on me…

I’ve got those lost-my-man, can’t get him back again blues….

Very early jazz purchase from me – probably 19 years old in London.  I bought another Ellington record too “1929-1930” probably because it had East St Louis Toodle-oo and seemed like an early/fundamental/influential collection – but what did I know at 19 ?  Very little.  I had just moved to Fitzroy St Halls of Residence under the Post Office Tower – a short walk down Charlotte St to Soho Square, the 100 Club, the Marquee in Wardour St, the record shops of Berwick St and Hanway St.   It was autumn 1976.   I mis-spent many an hour flicking through endless vinyl and selecting which of the glorious LP covers I would release my un-earned Student Grant on.  Yes, now it can be told :  I was part of the lucky generation, there’s no question about it, brought up by a single parent on social security on a council estate, I still nevertheless got to study Law at LSE for three years because I was good at passing exams essentially.  A good short-term memory.  Crucial for actors, and probably lawyers, although I never got to test that theory out.  They are not so different though as jobs of work.

Anyway at some point, perhaps while hitch-hiking around the USA, or perhaps during those Fresher Week moments, I realised that I knew next-to-nothing about Music with a capital M.  Really.  I knew a few prog bands and a bunch of pop records from the charts, I worshipped Hendrix and John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Joe Walsh.  The rest was bluff and prejudice.  These record shops in W1 made me feel unenlightened and I longed for education.  My fellow students would help me out of course, but my duty to myself was clear and unequivocal :  Buy More Records.  Buy important records that made their mark.  Records that were Influential.  It was a little bit like doing a degree in Art History and catching up on the big paintings.   But I knew next to nothing.  Little scraps gleaned from the oh-so-current New Musical Express.   But musical history?  Where would you start?  I thought perhaps – with Jazz.   A scary big universe of famous names and complicated music.   But undeniably cool though, that much was clear.   So much to choose from, familiar and very unfamiliar names – I’m still finding cultural holes in the jazz road.   But Ellington was a large lamp-post, a shining beacon, a hostelry where one could sit awhile with a cocktail and tap one’s foot.    And Billie Holiday I knew the name – presumably – via Diana Ross and Lady Sings The Blues.

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I struck gold with the 1929-30 LP – it contained many of the amazing hits in the early 30s which are all carved into stone as masterpieces of the 78rpm record : The Mooche, Mood Indigo, Take The A-Train, Rockin’ In Rhythm.   But this other slab of vinyl – Duke Ellington’s Band Shorts (and it was heavy vinyl on the Biograph label I think) – appealed to me for a different reason : it seemed collectable because it had the three soundtracks (Black & Tan Fantasy and Bundle Of Blues are the other two) Duke had made in that period for short films, one of which had a 19-year old Billie Holiday singing in her film debut.  The film is called Symphony in Black and was directed by Fred Waller and was the first ‘commercially available’ film about black people in America. It won the Oscar for best short film the following year.  The piece of music is called A Rhapsody Of Negro Life, and honours WC Handy, George Gershwin and Ravel among others – but most notably the Harlem scene it represented.

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The film itself shows the young genius composer at the piano writing the score – and the score is at the crossroads of classical, blues, jazz and film music;  like so much of that era’s work we are terribly familiar with the shapes and sounds and tempos because they were the backing for so many cartoons and short silent films.   There are four parts : “The Laborers,” “A Triangle”, “A Hymn of Sorrow” and “Harlem Rhythm” and the whole piece lasts 9 minutes.

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Billie Holiday, (who had recorded her first sides in late 1933 with Benny Goodman a year previously) sings the blues lament and appears in the film as a spurned lover in an echo of the famous Bessie Smith short film “St Louis Blues” which was the other film soundtrack LP I bought on the same day.  They both seemed to me to be treasure, and for a while they were the only jazz records I owned.

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Billie, Duke, jazz critic Leonard Feather in 1935

This piece contains everything I love about music in 9 short minutes.  It changes tempo and key, it chatters and jitters, it swoons, it has a tear in its eye, it swells like a heaving chest about to burst, it is painterly and grand, emotional and beautiful.  I commend it to thy collections.

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