Jazz, Social Commentary, and the Harlem Renaissance

“Black and Tan Fantasy”

27 Sep 2020

“Black and Tan Fantasy”


Duke Ellington and “Black and Tan Fantasy”


Nearly a year (10/26/1927) after their recording of “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” Duke Ellington and His Orchestra entered the Victor Talking Machine Co. in Camden, New Jersey, where they recorded multiple takes of “Black and Tan Fantasy” with the fourth take, Vic 24861-A, being designated as the master. The composition, written by Ellington and Miley, is loosely based on the Victorian, religious song, “The Holy City,” by white composer Michael Maybrick from 1892. In an ironic twist, Ellington and Miley paradoxically transmute the goals of Locke and his contemporaries by using a sacrosanct composition and converting it into a blues—a prime, musical exploit of Gates’s signifyin’ trope. For comparison, the following figures juxtapose Miley’s earthy introduction against Maybrick’s choral refrain.

Fig. “Black and Tan Fantasy.” Bubber Miley’s introduction from 10/26/27 recording. Author’s transcription.


Fig. “The Holy City,” music by Michael Maybrick and lyrics by F.E. Weatherly. 1976 edition by Boosey & Co.


While there is a discernable relationship between the two melodies, the minor tonality of “Black and Tan Fantasy” inverts, through satire, the religiosity of “The Holy City.”

In a 1933 article, “My Hunt for Song Titles,” for the British periodical, Rhythm, Ellington elucidated how the titles of his works reflected the experience of his people— principally the life of Harlem in the 1920s. He explicated, “There are in Harlem certain places after the style of night clubs patronized by both white and coloured [sic] amusement seekers, and these are colloquially known as ‘black and tans.’” Through “Black and Tan Fantasy,” then, Ellington aspires to unify the bifurcate nature of the lived experiences in what Locke dubbed as the “Mecca of the New Negro.” By way of musically juxtaposing two contrasting themes, (one black, the other tan), he fashions one cohesive and integrated composition. The extramusical implication, which prefigures his 1943 tone parallel to the black American experience entitled, Black, Brown, and Beige, is that of an indefatigable people so resolute in procuring social equity and the universal acceptance of their humanity. The figure below sheds light on how Ellington, through musical form, coalesces the urban aesthetic of the African American population with the urbane character of the white clientele.


Fig. “Black and Tan Fantasy Form Diagram” based on the 10/26/27 recording.


“Black and Tan Fantasy.” Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. 10/26/1927.

The piece opens with the emphatic temperament of the brass over a B-minor blues. This chorus is meant to evoke the unflagging character of the black population, buoyed by their faith that they shall overcome someday. To convey this spirit, Bubber Miley utilizes a plunger mute as he bends the notes of the languid, melodic line. Nanton harmonizes beneath him. The rhythm section (bass, drums, and banjo) propels the movement by accenting each beat while Ellington syncopates the tune with stabbing, percussive off-beat chords on the piano. On the final beat of the first chorus, Sonny Greer crashes, then immediately mutes, the cymbal; this separates the contrasting blues with the following sixteen-bar interlude in the major mode.

The second strain is an unconventional treatment of a blues composition. The aforementioned sixteen-bar interlude opens with a G7 chord. While the tonicization of a key that is a third away is not uncommon in the jazz idiom, it does create a startling effect. Hardwick presents a new melody in a sweet style in the parallel major key of B; this contrast may allude to the possibilities of unanimity through diversity that the black and tan nightclubs presented. During a two-measure break, the band performs a turn-around that includes a descending, chromatic figure that connects the two, eight-bar phrases. There is a recapitulation of the first phrase that ends with Greer’s muted cymbal expression.

Miley picks up in the subsequent chorus with a gritty improvisation over a B-major blues. For the first four bars, he holds the tonic pitch that foretells Louis Armstrong’s well-documented solo during his 1928 recording of “West End Blues.” For the remainder of the chorus, Miley plays affecting, bluesy phrases. By manipulating the position of the plunger mute over the straight mute, he varies the timbral essence of the tune; this “wah-wah” or vocal effect would become a staple in Ellington’s sonic palette.

Seemingly unwilling to acquiesce to reticence, Miley solos in the fourth chorus. Carving a melodic contour that cascaded from the opening B in measure twenty-nine to its cadence in measure forty (chorus three), he leaps to the flatted-fifth of the tonic chord to begin his new improvisation. His distinctive growling, as he attacks the blue notes, reminds the listener that this is a black man asserting his agency through his music; or, as Murray explicated, “The blues is a way of getting rid of despondency, despair, discouragement. You accept the necessity for struggle. So, you look upon the dragon as an evocation for heroic action.” Once Miley reaches the dominant chord in measure fifty, Miley aggressively rips an ascending glissando to a climatic B4 on the third beat of the bar. His solo comes to a close in measure fifty-two where Ellington commands the fifth chorus.

The mood lightens when Ellington initiates his improvisation—a loose, relaxed, swinging stride in the vein of his mentor, James P., which starkly counters Miley’s fiery and emotive vernacular sermon. Rhythmically, the solo is replete with over-the-bar syncopations and backbeats, while crafting a lyrical melody that rises and falls. Ellington, the consummate commandant of tonal color, constructs a vibrant and ebullient twelve-bar statement. Assuredly, he is reacting to the “white heat” of his people’s sorrows by presenting, musically, what Langston Hughes would later declare as, “pain swallowed in a smile.”

The penultimate section opens with the tight plunger work of trombonist, Nanton. His approach complements the growling effects and vocal mimicry found in the improvisations of Miley. The comical whinny provides a release from the tense, dark timbre that permeates the piece. “I laughed like everyone else over its instrumental wa-waing and gargling and gobbling,” author and music critic, R.D. Darrell wrote. He maintained:

But as I continued to play the record…I laughed less heartily and with less zest. In my ears the whinnies and wa-was began to resolve into new tone colors, distorted and tortured, but agonizingly expressive. The piece took on a surprising individuality and entity as well as an intensity of feeling that was totally incongruous in popular dance music. Beneath all its oddity and perverseness there was a twisted beauty that grew on me more and more and could not be shaken off.

In the final chorus, Miley returns with two, two-bar phrases that are answered by acute accents from the rhythm section. The ensemble joins the trumpeter in the eighth measure of this ten-bar strain. In the final bar, the F7 harmony prepares for the return to  the parallel minor key in the coda. Here, Ellington quotes Frédéric Chopin’s “Funeral March” to end the piece definitively.

The inclusion of the march irreverently decries the pronouncements of the Harlem Renaissance elite. The work of Ellington and Miley has come full circle. The piece began with a Gatesian parody of “The Holy City” and ends with the insertion of a fragment from a renowned composition of the classical canon, Chopin’s “Funeral March.” This treatment would likely to be considered impious by Locke and contravenes the very means by which he hoped to inaugurate the “New Negro”—by implanting African American folk music into Eurocentric, classical models, one could uplift the white population’s perception of the black community.

In the next installment, we explore the film adaptation of “Black and Tan Fantasy.”

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