Duke Ellington, “Black Beauty”
Okeh 8636 · Oct 1, 1928
Duke Ellington very rarely recorded any solo piano material. In a fifty-year career of constant recording, writing, and playing, the number of records where he played only one instrument rather than, as the saying goes, using the orchestra as his instrument can be counted on the fingers of both hands. That he would enter the studio alone, to cut a single record without the benefit of the wide instrumental texture of his crack band, is so unusual that it’s almost inevitable that an attentive listener would assume it had some personal significance to him.
Perhaps it did; or perhaps he simply wanted to goose sales of the sheet music of the solo piano arrangement. But that too was unusual for him; though he had recently signed with Irving Mills, manager, music publisher and hogger of credit (pay very little attention when “Mills” pops up in the songwriting bylines; he seems to have paid actual songwriters like Yip Harburg for lyrics and then pocketed the royalties for himself) to publish and promote his compositions via the lucrative sheet-music market (even today, performing songs is one thing, but the real money is in writing them), his arrangement for “Black Beauty” was not the kind of thing your average parlor pianist could sit down and play.
In fact, a strong argument for Ellington as one of the great jazz pianists of the age could be made from this record alone. Though he ornaments the melody with plenty of showy filigree — rather in the manner that Art Tatum would later do, but without the fuck-you showboating — the heart of the piece recorded here are the chord changes, which he plays against harmonically in a very moving way. I’m so familiar with the original full-band recording, of course, that the slightest variation from its melody stands out to me, but still, hearing Ellington step down from the written chords into minor sadness and bluesy grief is powerful. Though he allows his fingers to dance — if my theory (which I’m hardly alone in holding) about the origins of the composition is true, it would be disrespectful to the spirit of Florence Mills if they didn’t — the mood is rather that of an elegy than a romp.
It’s a beautiful performance, sensitively played and deeply thought through, and if Duke Ellington isn’t generally regarded as being in the first rank of jazz pianists it’s only because his compositional talent was so huge as to overwhelm his instrumental. Though we’ll occasionally hear him solo again this week, we won’t ever catch him alone again. He was a deeply private man, keeping his thoughts and feelings almost entirely to himself — or rather, choosing to express them not through words, but through music. Here we catch him, or he allows us to think we do, thinking clearly and feeling deeply.