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What is the meaning behind Black, Brown and Beige?

What is the meaning behind Black, Brown and Beige?

Black, Brown and Beige is a jazz composition by Duke Ellington that was first performed in 1943. It is an extended work that traces the history of African Americans from slavery through the Harlem Renaissance. The piece is known for its fusion of different musical styles and its ambitious attempt to capture the Black experience in America.

Background of Black, Brown and Beige

Duke Ellington composed Black, Brown and Beige in 1943 on commission from the Carnegie Hall for a performance there. Ellington later said the composition was inspired by a conversation with the NAACP leader Walter White about writing a piece capturing the African American experience. Ellington, who came from a middle-class background himself, wanted to present a broad portrait of the full scope of Black life beyond just the stereotypical images of Black people prevalent at the time.

The three movement titles refer to the different skin tones of African Americans. “Black” represents Africa and the arrival of Africans in America as slaves. “Brown” captures the mixed-race individuals that began appearing with the rape of enslaved African women by white men. “Beige” refers to middle-class Blacks striving for integration in the 20th century. Together, the full piece was intended to provide a panoramic view of the African American journey in the U.S.

Structure and Content

Black, Brown and Beige is structured as a three movement work lasting around 60 minutes:

  • “Black” – depicts African heritage and slavery
  • “Brown” – covers post-Civil War era through Harlem Renaissance
  • “Beige” – focuses on middle-class Black life in the 20th century

The music combines jazz, blues, spirituals, and other African American musical traditions to bring the historical narrative to life. “Black” opens with a powerful work song section with call and response patterns that evokes the slavery era. A more somber mood comes later in “Black” with trumpet and saxophone solos over a spiritual-influenced melody, symbolizing the pain but also resilience of slaves. “Brown” features swinging jazz rhythms and bluesy melodies as it progresses through Reconstruction and the emergence of ragtime and early jazz in New Orleans. The final movement “Beige” includes Baroque counterpoint and classical forms like fugue to represent the Black middle class seeking status and assimilation into white society.

Beyond just the music, Ellington used narration and interpretive dance during the original Carnegie Hall performance to guide the audience through the historical storyline. Actor Frank Wilson provided poetic narration between the movements written by Ellington and lyricist Irving Mills. Katherine Dunham choreographed interpretive dance vignettes for her dance troupe to perform during the piece.

Initial Reception and Legacy

The Carnegie Hall premiere of Black, Brown and Beige on January 23, 1943 featured Ellington’s jazz orchestra along with orchestral string players. While the performance received praise for its ambition and epic scope, some critics felt Ellington’s fusion of styles was too discordant and lacked cohesion between movements. Controversy also arose from Katherine Dunham’s dance performance, with some objecting to her dancers’ portrayal of plantation slaves.

Despite the mixed initial reaction, Ellington continued revising the work after the premiere through subsequent performances like at the Rainbow Room and Carnegie Hall again in 1944. Shortened versions focused mainly on the “Black” first movement also became popular. The full piece is still considered one of Ellington’s major extended compositions along with later works like Harlem. While some flaws persist in its sprawling conception, Ellington’s portrait of the African American experience remains an important milestone and signpost in the evolution of jazz.

Year Key Event
1943 Black, Brown and Beige premieres at Carnegie Hall conducted by Ellington
1944 Revised version performed at the Rainbow Room in New York City
1944 Second Carnegie Hall performance of refined version
1958 Ellington records updated 45-minute version for his album Black, Brown and Beige
1973 Full 60-minute version recorded live at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, Canada

Musical and Cultural Legacy

As one of Ellington’s first extended compositions focused on social issues and African American history, Black, Brown and Beige served as an inspiration for later works of his like A Drum Is a Woman and Such Sweet Thunder. It paved the way for longer jazz pieces with programmatic narrative elements.

Ellington received criticism during the civil rights era for not being more politically outspoken through his music. But the historical narrative of Black, Brown and Beige shows he did engage racial themes early on in pieces like this. The work remains culturally significant as an ambitious attempt to summarize and give musical expression to the multi-faceted African American experience.

The prevalence of jazz innovators like Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and others during the Harlem Renaissance illustrates the importance of this era that Ellington celebrates in “Brown.” The music of Black, Brown and Beige highlights jazz as an emerging uniquely African American art form. The later influence and popularity of this music underscores jazz’s vital role in African American cultural identity.

While some may argue Black, Brown and Beige romanticizes parts of Black history, the work still provides a bold musical portrait of centuries of African American culture. Flawed in places, Ellington’s expansive musical canvas linking Africa, slavery, Reconstruction, Harlem Renaissance, and middle-class aspiration holds an important place in the histories of both jazz and Black America.


Duke Ellington pioneered the extended jazz work focused on African American themes with his groundbreaking 1943 piece Black, Brown and Beige. The three movement composition traces Blacks’ journey from African roots through slavery, post-Civil War freedom, the creative explosion of the Harlem Renaissance, and middle-class aspirations in the 20th century. Though initially controversial, Ellington’s fusion of varied musical styles to depict Black history remains a milestone work in jazz and African American culture. Black, Brown and Beige showed Ellington’s ambition to move beyond pop songs to longer artistic statements expressing the Black experience. The piece formed a jazz foundation that later Black composers and musicians would also build on in the realms of politics and social justice.