Duke Ellington’s “Black Beauty”

I was driving through New York City yesterday and encountered an unusual amount of traffic, due to accidents, detours, and the like. It was so bad that I abandoned my usual route entirely and explored neighborhoods that I had never been in before, all the while keeping the sun to my left so I knew I was going north. Forward progress was so slow that a normally 30-minute drive took me over 2 hours!

I didn’t mind, though, for two reasons:

1. I enjoy discovering new parts of NYC and figuring out how to find my way (I refused to put on the GPS!), and

2. I had a wonderful collection of early Duke Ellington recordings to listen to!

When we think of Ellington, we usually think of his famous tunes like Take The ‘A’ Train (yes, I know; composed by Billy Strayhorn), Sophisticated Lady, and maybe his extended works. But Ellington had a very long early phase of his career and apart from Mood Indigo, not many of the songs from this period are well known to the general jazz listening public.

If you’re an Ellington aficionado, you probably know such tunes as East St. Louis Toodle-oo (1927) with it’s haunting minor-key theme, or Creole Love Call with Adelaide Hall’s idiosyncratic scat singing. But do you know New Orleans Low-Down or Cotton Club Stomp? These are vibrant, evocative compositions in the early jazz idiom that Ellington helped develop.

One of my favorites early Ellington pieces is Black Beauty. Have you ever heard it? Subtitled “Portrait of Florence Mills,” it has a catchy melody and several distinct sections that flow together seamlessly.

I first heard the piece on a small group recording that Ellington made late in his life. Further research led me to discover that it was indeed one of his earliest classics. He must have loved it too or he wouldn’t have kept playing it for all those years!

Here are 2 versions for you to enjoy:

The first is a solo piano recording, with transcription. Notice how simple and restrained Duke’s left hand part is at the beginning. Then the stride accompaniment kicks in and it sounds more like the early jazz piano style we usually think of. Here it is:

Black Beauty (solo piano)

The second is one of those rare videos that somehow made it onto YouTube. No historical info is given other than the date of 1929 which is plausible because the song was composed a year earlier, in 1928. The video quality is stunning for such an early date, so I’m not sure if it was somehow restored or enhanced or if someone used an especially clean filming technique back then. In any case, it’s very clear! (And check out Duke playing his piano solo “upside down” in the floor mirror!!!)

Black Beauty (Ellington’s band with dancers)

Enjoy this trip back in time to the early days of Duke Ellington and jazz history!

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