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Duke Ellington and the movies grew up roughly at the same time. Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington, D.C., in 1899, just a few years after the Lumière brothers screened their first short films in Paris. Suffice to say, both Ellington and the cinema would have an enormous impact on the popular culture of the burgeoning 20th century. With his dashing good looks and elegant persona, Ellington seemed a natural for the silver screen. His debonair comportment and remarkable gifts as a composer and bandleader enabled him to transcend Jim Crow caricature — and jazz caricature, for the most part — on the silver screen in a way unavailable to many of his Black contemporaries, including Louis Armstrong. From the 1920s to the 1960s, Ellington and/or his music graced films and soundtracks, along with many of the band members who had brought his music to life for decades.Ellington is just one of the musicians featured in jazz critic and author Kevin Whitehead’s recent book Play the Way You Feel: The Essential Guide to Jazz Stories on Film (Oxford University Press). A regular contributor to NPR’s Fresh Air for more than 30 years, Whitehead examines in detail the portrayal of jazz and jazz musicians in movies from the Depression-era to contemporary times; his take on Dan Pritzker’s biopic Bolden caps the book in 2019. The following adapted excerpts from Play the Way You Feel, which were edited for length, concentrate on Ellington’s contributions to four films — two shorts from the 1920s and ’30s and two features from the 1950s and ’60s — as both an onscreen presence and as a musical tour de force.Black and Tan (1929)
As it opens, Ellington is playing (a fictionalized version of) himself at an upright piano in his boarding-house room. Dressed for work in vest and shirtsleeves, he runs down the first two strains of his new “Black and Tan Fantasy” for visiting bandsman Arthur Whetsol who reads the wah-wah muted trumpet line off the page. That the song was two years old makes Black and Tan a biographical picture, which in classic biopic fashion invents dramatic situations and writes a key figure out of the story. By 1929, co-composer [Bubber] Miley was out of the band, and is unmentioned here; Whetsol hadn’t yet joined when it was first recorded. Whetsol and Ellington play live on camera. The composer is portrayed throughout as a dignified figure, in stark contrast to two comically illiterate movers who arrive to repossess Duke’s piano until girlfriend Fredi Washington gets home and buys them off with a bottle of gin. (Washington also plays a fictionalized self; she and Ellington were involved for a time.) Ellington’s body language during this transaction is revealing; one gathers he was directed to look at these piano-moving buffoons with amusement. In a medium shot he plants a placid smile on his face but leans away like a Pisan tower, managing to look both amused and askance. As they’re leaving, we see where Whetsol disappeared to; he sits in a corner, reading a magazine, occupying his mind. The contrast between musicians and movers highlights the film’s internal contradictions.
[caption id="attachment_35265" align="alignleft" width="768"] The Duke Ellington Orchestra in a screen capture from the film 'Black and Tan.'[/caption]
Fredi announces she’s secured a featured dance spot at a club, with Duke’s band in support. He reminds her of her doctor’s warning — her heart is too weak. But she’s determined, and changes the subject by asking to hear that new tune they’re working up. Duke and Art reprise the opening of “Black and Tan Fantasy” before the fade. In the next scene Ellington’s orchestra is on that job, playing “The Duke Steps Out” at a fancy venue with a mirrored dance floor in front of the stage, playing for a quintet of male dancers, the Cotton Club’s Five Blazers. When the band goes into the lovely “Black Beauty,” the Blazers go into their “one man dance,” a soft shoe in unison and close formation, one in front of another, a tightly packed queue, quintupled. Even the loose drape of their trousers falls in unison. We see this spectacle from all angles as the formation rotates on stage. The effect is made doubly bizarre by that mirrored floor; all those visual repetitions suggest trick photography. It’s a visual analogue to what Ellington does in “Black and Tan Fantasy,” superimposing “The Holy City,” Chopin and the blues. But [director Dudley] Murphy is just getting started, as he cuts away to a skimpily clad Fredi in the wings, looking wan and unsteady as she waits to go on. The director gives the viewer no cues to signal a leap back in time, but what we see next is those same two Blazers numbers (almost three minutes of action) repeated from what is and isn’t Fredi’s point of view: a doubling of the action in time, and also in space. There are a few shots of Duke and the orchestra from her sidestage perspective, and cutaways to Fredi, but mostly we see the Blazers from the audience’s viewpoint, with one crucial difference. To convey her fragile state, they’re refracted through a quasi-kaleidoscopic fly’s-eye lens, repeating the basic image as many as seven times, so that at one point during the one-man dance 35 Blazers (and four Ellingtons) crowd the frame. Murphy has replicated Ballet mécanique’s avant-garde flourishes — rhythm and repetition, recurring sequences, inverted or upside-down images, kaleidoscopic fragmentation and double-vision effects — in a naturalistic story setting. Soon after, Fredi comes on doing her shimmy-shake-hula-strut high-kicking routine to an uptempo “Cotton Club Stomp”— some of it shot from below, as if through the mirrored floor. Fredi collapses; a trouper, she holds on till the song’s final bar. The emcee (Duke’s manager Irving Mills) instantly tells some stagehands to drag her off. “Sit down Duke and play something,” he directs the alarmed bandleader. “Play the girls’ number. Get the show on. Keep the show on.” Ellington takes his orders, and a line of feathered Cotton Club chorines hit the stage to the tune of “Hot Feet.” But when Duke overhears Mills tell a stagehand, “Don’t tell him now, wait till after the show,” the bandleader cuts the music off and walks out in anger. Finally we are back in Duke’s and Fredi’s room where she lies in bed. The Hall Johnson Choir has gathered, vainly attempting to sing Fredi back to health. Dying, she asks to hear the assembled Ellington band play “Black and Tan Fantasy” — the first and only time we hear it complete, with the choir chiming in as best they can. Fredi expires just as the orchestra gets to that Chopin funeral-march ending. She gazes at Duke, who slides out of focus. But then (as the music winds down), Murphy briefly doubles down on that earlier doubled-time gambit. We now see Fredi’s death once more, from her subjective point of view. In a lingering reprise, Duke’s sad face again goes out of focus and then fades to black, fleetingly resembling a death’s head. Give Murphy credit for the striking images and the weird unsignaled turns — he makes up his own grammar and syntax. The mix of the refined and the vulgar, along with striking effects, is avant-garde art Ellington could relate to. Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life (1935)
Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life contains a bit of manufactured drama, but not enough to upstage the music. As it begins, a letter arrives for Duke, from an official at the National Concert Bureau: “Just a reminder that the world premiere of your new symphony of Negro Moods takes place two weeks from today. I trust that work on the manuscript is nearing completion so that you may soon start rehearsals.” There is a whiff of panic in this request, understandably. Ellington was notorious for working best under the gun: “I scarcely do anything without a tight deadline. I work to the last minute.” So here, for the first time on film, is the real Ellington — not one who falls behind on his piano payments. Instead, this screen-Ellington realizes two already stated goals: to present an ambitious suite depicting scenes from African American life and to perform at a major New York concert hall.As in Black and Tan, we first see Ellington at work, at the piano — though now he has a grand. Duke makes pencil corrections to a manuscript, and then reads through the first section of the suite. We see a purported score from his viewpoint; the opening movement is called “The Laborers.” After a four-bar intro, we crossfade to the concert stage, where the full orchestra (padded out with extra players in some shots) takes up the music, for a white audience in a hall often shot from the balcony. A heavy, coordinated, recurring beat suggests a work song — taking us back before the birth of jazz, to the synchronized hits used to focus the muscle power of longshoremen, railroad builders and stone-hauling slaves. (We think of such heavy accents in African American music as falling on even-numbered offbeats — the backbeat — but this one falls on the first beat of every other bar.) The work-song effect is reinforced by [Joe] Nanton’s trombone in field-holler mode and moaning commentary from Johnny Hodges’ alto. Now as the music continues the scene shifts again, to industrial-age laboring in rhythm: Olive-skinned men in short sleeves or stripped to the waist (but wearing snakeskin boots or loafers) shovel coal into the maw of a giant furnace. One wonders if Duke supplied even this music at the last minute, because the tempo of the filmed action doesn’t match the tune; the discrepancy calls for artful, mostly unobtrusive film edits between those heavy slams. We also see workers straining under what look like sandbags. As “The Laborers” concludes with a Hodges flourish, we’re back with Duke in his studio, moving on to Part Two: “Dance/Jealousy/Blues,” and then to the concert stage again. With deadline pressure looming, the real Ellington sometimes recycled previously written material into a new piece, as he does here. For the first section of this movement Duke has rearranged his dance number “Ducky Wucky”; the new version has more drive and spirit than the lone 1932 Brunswick recording. (The band had been playing it on the road; its title is a term of endearment from the Amos ’n’ Andy radio show.) Then the scene shifts again, to show what such music is made for and what inspired it: dancing. Duke said that after a concert tour, the band was rejuvenated by playing for dancers again, feeding off their energy. We see a small apartment where a man and woman dance to the gramophone — spinning “Ducky Wucky,” presumably — and cast shadows on the curtains. Their undulating silhouettes are observed by a woman in the street below, leaning against an el-train stanchion. It’s Billie Holiday, 19 when the film was made, who’d barely recorded at that point. Primed for a night out, the man and woman bolt down the stairs. In the street Billie confronts the man, who knocks her to the pavement before moving on. (Holiday said in her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues that she got badly bruised from multiple retakes, and you can see her dead-cat bounce off the studio floor.) For a moment, we are back with Ellington in his garret, playing a stormy rubato intro — and then with the band on stage as Barney Bigard picks up the theme on clarinet, before we return to Holiday. Sprawled on the sidewalk, propped up on her elbows, she sings the rewritten vocal couplet from Duke’s decorated blues “Saddest Tale”: the fanfare that gets them in and out of the original. She sings, “The saddest tale on land or sea/Is when my man walked out on me.” Then Billie collapses, and back on the concert stage Nanton’s wah-wah trombone picks up the story, as (in faint double exposure) she gathers her strength to stand up to sing a proper, newly added blues chorus. You’d think the tune was called “Lost My Man Blues,” the way the lyric harps on the phrase. Never content to leave his sources exactly as he found them, Ellington adds a twist. The form is a 12-bar blues frame, but the stanza squeezes in six short lines rather than the usual three, though it doesn’t feel rushed. This early film appearance helped feed the misconception that Holiday, who sang dozens of standards and very few blues, was really a blues singer — even in the title of her book.
[caption id="attachment_35268" align="alignleft" width="932"] Billie Holiday[/caption]
Holiday doesn’t look at the camera as she sings that stanza, her eyes closed in concentration. The setting and some particulars differ, but we’ve encountered this scenario before, in St. Louis Blues  where Bessie [Smith] starts singing from floor-level. That film portrayed blues performance as a spurned woman’s spontaneous utterance even as the musicians backing her played from sheet music. Symphony in Black teases those layers apart, shifting as it does among three levels of time, two specific — Duke at work in his studio, the orchestra performing on stage — and one more general: the quotidian world in which hard labor and heartbreak (and, as the suite continues, death and celebration) are eternal verities. When Ellington writes his songs of Negro Moods, he gives voice to the feelings of his people and at the same time gives them vehicles to express those feelings. In those conjoined levels, Ellington the man is fused with his music and his community. Symphony in Black is a vivid portrait of Duke sketched in nine minutes — a sort of biopic in pantomime. Lovely as his voice is, he doesn’t speak. That trifurcated action continues in the last two segments, as well. “A Hymn of Sorrow” is a plaintive melody for straight-muted trumpet, over a cushion of reeds. It takes us to a dimly lighted, plain church, where a leonine patriarch presides over a small child’s funeral — there’s an open coffin draped in a sheet before the lectern — and leads the congregation in somber prayer. From Sonny Greer’s rack of orchestral chimes, a church bell tolls. (It’s a shorter segment, under two minutes, and a lovely, overlooked Ellington melody.) In Duke’s vision, this was the conclusion of the suite — echoing the funereal ending of Black and Tan. But in the editing it was decided to flip the order of the final movements and go out with a bang on the even shorter “Harlem Rhythm,” actually the floor-show flagwaver “Merry-Go-Round” from the year before, tightened up a bit. That melody sets off an uptown montage: dancer Earl “Snakehips” Tucker (whose image is briefly doubled and superimposed, in a faint echo of Black and Tan), grass-skirted chorus girls walking the bar, barflies in silhouette, flashing electric signs. Musically, the suite plays well in either order. Ellington never performed Symphony in Black as heard in the film, and the score was lost. Eight years later, in January 1943, Duke presented his “tone parallel to the history of the American Negro,” the 40-minute suite Black, Brown and Beige, at Carnegie Hall. It began with “Work Song” with its grunting accent on the first beat, and moved on (via Greer’s churchbell chimes) to the solemn hymn “Come Sunday.” The “Brown” movement started with a Harlem-festive “West Indian Dance” and included a (Betty Roché) vocal on “The Blues” that isn’t a straight blues, expanding the stanza form. This monumental suite Ellington had planned for years was written on deadline, ready at the last minute, and included a bit of recycled material. So we might look at Symphony in Black as Duke’s prospectus for Black, Brown and Beige. Prospectus, and maybe prediction too: With this film, he steps up to the plate and points his bat at the centerfield fence. Many jazz films draw on incidents from real life; this time the movie version came first, with Ellington visualizing his goals. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn scored Otto Preminger’s 1959 courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder, shot and set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Duke makes a cameo appearance, playing piano in a quintet at a rural roadhouse. Jimmy Stewart’s character sits in: four hands at the keyboard, as if Duke needed help. (Extenuating circumstances: When Stewart muses on piano at home, he sounds like Strayhorn, who ghosted him.) But Ellington’s not Ellington here, he’s “Pie Eye.” In that role he gets a couple of (trivial) lines for once —“Hey, you’re not splittin’ the scene, man? I mean you’re not cuttin’ out?”— then gives Stewart a leering “OK!” as he leaves with tarty Lee Remick.Paris Blues (1961)
Harold Flender’s 1957 novel Paris Blues is about a Black American saxophonist living in Paris who has an affair with a schoolteacher visiting from the U.S. As initially developed for the screen, the story became a tale of two musicians, Black and white — Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman — who have cross-racial romances with tourists Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll. The race-mixing intrigued Ellington enough to agree to write the music, in conjunction with compositional alter ego Strayhorn. But then distributor United Artists nixed the interracial angle. As Poitier would later say of that decision, “It took the spark out of it.” Ellington, already committed, felt the same. It cut the heart from what Paris Blues was intended to be. Director Martin Ritt would later claim, “We had no script on that picture.” Instead, the story goes, the filmmakers made the most of a picturesque location — Paris in overcast winter — and a first-rate cast with sexual chemistry. Newman and Woodward were married and often worked together; Poitier and Carroll had a long-simmering mutual attraction. Ram [Bowen, played by Newman]’s cool manner might have turned Lillian [Woodward] off, after her first flush of infatuation, but she perceives another, more vulnerable side of him, in his trombone playing. Ritt had requested Ellington give Ram a sound like Tommy Dorsey’s, clean and romantic, unlike Duke’s eccentric sliphorn players; Bowen’s horn was ghosted by both white Murray McEachern and black Billy Byers. (Eddie Cook [Poitier]’s tenor is ghosted by Ellington steamer Paul Gonsalves.) Lillian’s instincts are confirmed when Ram plays her a preliminary demo record of “Paris Blues.” She had tried to plunk it out on piano, finding his sketches there —“You think that melody’s heavy?” he’d asked, ever defensive — but she doesn’t read music well.
Strayhorn loved Paris and was glad to be working there, and the “Paris Blues” theme and that demo arrangement are almost certainly his. (Ellington, busy on the road in the States, arrived later.) The early 1960s was a very good period for Duke and his orchestra, and that demo is in the classic Ellington manner of the time, with countermelodies, surging backgrounds, lush saxophones and a lovely wayward melody — it’s classic Strayhorn, too. Between them, Strayhorn and Ellington composed one of the greatest jazz-film scores. Within the story, it makes sense that Bowen’s music resembles theirs. At the club, he features their tunes like a diehard fan: “Take the ‘A’ Train,” a three-minute “Mood Indigo,” both unspoiled by dialogue, and “Sophisticated Lady.” Trains turn up in numerous jazz movies — this film also ends with one, returning Lillian and Connie to Le Havre. In life, bands depended on trains to get around; in Europe, musicians still rely on them to go medium distances. This is why jazz composers pen train songs. (Blues composers too; W.C. Handy, you’ll recall, first met the blues at a depot.) Ellington’s 1924 debut recording was called “Choo Choo,” and that hard-traveling composer would go on to write numerous locomotive numbers, including “Daybreak Express” and “Happy-Go-Lucky Local.” Bowen has trains on his mind, too. The first sound in the picture, at the fade in, is a long high note like a European locomotive’s steam whistle: Ram’s trombone, kicking off Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train.” As Ram watches the train pull out, the music changes to a train’s rhythm and surging power, with steamwhistle phrases in the brass. Lillian is right — he will remember. He’s composing in his head even now, and the train section of “Paris Blues” will evoke that mix of loss and elation he feels at this very moment — elation, because now he can grapple with those musical challenges in earnest, undistracted. Like Eddie, Ram will stride out of the station like a man with places to go: He hears the future calling. The music’s buoyancy confirms he’s made the right choice. At the end of Paris Blues, Ellington’s band does what it did in [1934’s] Murder at the Vanities: rebels against the Euro-classical establishment with a blast of his own idiosyncratic style. Soundtrack composers manipulate audience responses all the time, of course: That’s their job. But this is a rare example of a composer effectively rewriting a film’s ending.