Thursday, April 17, 2014

Symphony in Black (Paramount, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I actually screened Paramount’s 1935 Duke Ellington band short Symphony in Black because I was doing a cue sheet for a mix disc containing its soundtrack, and I wanted to nail down the titles of the three subsections of the “Triangle” number — “Dance” (which was in fact a previous Ellington piece called “Ducky Wucky”), “Jealousy” and “Blues” — the last also a haunting song called “Saddest Tale” whose studio recording featured Ellington himself as vocalist but whose film version featured Billie Holiday. I watched the movie in the Kino on Video transfer — quite the best available version of this oft-reissued title, with excellent contrast and rich visuals — and it remains an amazing film, probably the best single “band short” (a 1930’s genre that held out pretty much until the advent of television, which featured popular big bands in often quite artful settings; they were essentially the music videos of the day) of all time. Though I have no indication whether Ellington himself was involved in the visual aspect of his shorts, this one and the previous film A Bundle of Blues 1933 — both directed by Fred Waller, later the inventor of Cinerama, for Paramount’s shorts department and shot in Ellington’s home base, New York City — are so much more imaginative visually than any other band shorts I’ve seen I can’t help but think Ellington, who’d been an aspiring painter before he settled on music as his career, had had something to do with the “look” of this film. The movie opens with a letter Ellington has supposedly received from either his music publisher or his manager reminding him that his “Symphony of Negro Moods” is supposed to premiere in two weeks and “I trust the manuscript is nearing completion so that you can start rehearsals.” (The film’s writers, Milton Hocky and Fred Rath, got that right about Ellington: he always hated rehearsing, generally called rehearsals only when he had new material to present to his band, and liked to throw things together at the last minute.)

The film has four segments, each introduced the same way: a shot of Ellington inside the “Duke Ellington Studio” sitting at his piano writing down music, dissolving to a scene of the Ellington band playing it, dissolving to a sequence illustrating, music-video style, what we’ve just seen Ellington composing and the band playing; and then a dissolve back to the band as the segment finishes. Symphony in Black is a remarkable 10-minute composition that, even though much of it derives from previously recorded Ellington pieces (the big “Harlem Rhythm” finale, with spectacular effects work that cuts off the chorus girls at the waist and turns dancer Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker into a dance duo, was a song called “Merry-Go-Round”), holds together well as a musical sequence and is obviously a sort of pencil sketch for the Ellington masterpiece Black, Brown and Beige from eight years later. There’s a work song (“The Laborers”), a religious scene (“A Hymn of Sorrow,” which in an interview at the time Ellington said was supposed to represent the funeral of a child — and in Kino’s transfer the image quality is at last good enough that the oblong box at the minister’s feet is recognizable as a child-size coffin and not just a part of the altar) — though it comes third instead of second as “Come Sunday” does in Black, Brown and Beige — a romantic triangle leading to a blues song, and a finale depicting African-American life in the present. The result is a visual and musical tour de force in which, despite some lapses (the “Laborers” sequence shows stokers shoveling coal off a perfectly finished soundstage floor), Waller’s images and Ellington’s music create a stunning combination that comes off as creative and innovative today.

Another reason Symphony in Black has remained in circulation as long as it has is the singer in the blues sequence; for some reason, instead of using his usual vocalist, Ivie Anderson (was her chronic asthma acting up worse than usual that week?), Ellington and Waller hired the young Billie Holiday. Ironically, given Billie’s oft-expressed admiration for Bessie Smith, her sequence has the identical plot as Smith’s one film, St. Louis Blues — she catches her boyfriend dancing and about to go out with another woman, confronts him, is pushed aside by him (indeed, Billie is knocked to the ground by her faithless lover in a scene that still seems quite violent — and she recalled in her autobiography that, totally untrained in how to “break” a movie fall and subjected to take after take of this, she ended up incredibly sore and in pain for several days afterwards), and sings a blues. Billie recalled it as “a weird and pretty blues number,” and it’s wrenching both in Ellington’s composition, the superb support she gets from his band members (Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams in particular — as on Billie’s great record of “Moanin’ Low,” Cootie’s trumpet sounds like a second voice, “moaning” in sympathy with her pain) and the quality of Billie’s voice. When the Symphony in Black soundtrack was recorded in October 1934, Billie had made only two commercial records — those nervous, uncertain performances of “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch” in November and December 1933 with a Benny Goodman studio band — but at sometime during that year she had developed her mature style and transformed herself from a youngster of some promise into a fully fledged professional. Her intonation is flawless (a few notes may be “bent” out of absolutely correct pitch, but she’s obviously doing that for effect), her phrasing sublime, her vocal tonality is free of the nasality of those early Goodman records and sounds like what we’re used to from her later masterpieces, and the “dying falls” — the downward glissandi with which she frequently ended a line — are heart-rending. She’s also an amazing visual presence, showing the combination of good looks and screen charisma that later powered Lena Horne to stardom (indeed, when Lena Horne hit big at MGM in the early 1940’s Warner Bros. briefly considered signing Billie as competition, but after they ran a background check on her they decided she’d be more trouble than she was worth). The alliance of Billie and Ellington remains one of the most tantalizing might-have-beens of jazz history (as it was they only got to record together once more, on the Jazz at the Plaza album from 1958 — a year before Billie’s death), not only because they sound so great together but because the cocoon Ellington built around his musicians might have protected her from her self-destructive tendencies — and I rather think Ellington might have hired Billie if he hadn’t already had a quite good and stylistically unique singer in Ivie Anderson (who I’m still convinced would have been a star on the level of Billie and Ella Fitzgerald if her asthma hadn’t cut short her career and forced her into early retirement).