Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) Updates Duke Ellington’s Classic ‘Black, Brown, and Beige’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Considered by most to be Duke Ellington’s greatest work, Black, Brown & Beige, the sprawling history of African -Americans has been, recorded several times over the years either in its entirety but performed live just in pieces. Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) performed the entire piece live at Rose Theater in New York in 2018, captured here in a digital-only recording.  This is the JLCO’s label, Blue Engine’s, first release of not just the piece, but music entirely Ellington. Marsalis adds that it “covers a mosaic of not just Afro-American but of American styles of music.” Joining the 15 piece JCLO are spirited vocalist Brianna Thomas and violinist Eli Bishop to give it even more depth.

Let’s walk back the history. Ellington referred to his suite as “B,B, & B” and it dates to a preview performance at Rye High School in Westchester County, NY on January 22, 1943, before what most refer to as its debut at Carnegie Hall the following night. It was also performed at Boston’s Symphony Hall of January 28 of that same year. After these three shows, Ellington rarely performed the suite in its entirety live, choosing instead to play selections. Later that same year at the December 11 concert at Carnegie Hall. Ellington said, “We thought we wouldn’t play it in its entirely tonight because it represents an awfully long and important story and that I don’t think too many people are familiar with the story. This is the one we dedicate to the 700 Negroes who came from Haiti to save Savannah during the Revolutionary War. The band then played “West Indian Influence,” the section which Ellington had referenced. After that they played “Lighter Attitude” which is a reworking of “Emancipation Celebration.”

The most often played and best know is “Come Sunday.” It and “the Blues” were part of Ellington’s 1963 show, My People which celebrated the 100th anniversary of The Emancipation Proclamation. “Black” was performed at the White House on June 14, 1965. Recordings of the entire suite include the original Carnegie Hall 1943 concert on Prestige,  RCA recordings of the studio versions, recorded shortly after the debut, a 1988 RCA compilation of 1943 excerpts, and the most notable, a 1958 Columbia release of the reworked suite that represents the most complete studio version with Mahalia Jackson on vocal. It was also performed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. (more on this further below)

Here is the personnel for the JLCO recording:


Sherman Irby (alto saxophone)

Ted Nash (alto saxophone)

Victor Goines (tenor saxophone, clarinet)

Julian Lee (substitute for Walter Blanding)

Paul Nedzela (baritone saxophone)

Dan Nimmer (piano, bells)
Carlos Henriquez (bass)
Marion Felder (drums)

James Chirillo (guitar)


Ryan Kisor

Marcus Printup

Kenny Rampton

Wynton Marsalis (music director)

Jonah Moss



Chris Crenshaw


Special Guests:

Eli Bishop (violin)

Brianna Thomas (vocals)


Elliot Mason

Kasperi Sarikoski (substitute for Vincent Gardner)

Sam Chess (substitute for Chris Crenshaw)

=There are three pieces within each segment of the suite with soloists as follows: BLACK – Work Song: Nedzela, Rampton, Chess, Irby  – Come Sunday: Mason, Sarikoski, Nash, Bishop, Nimmer, Irby –Light: Printup, Marsalis, Henriquez, Mason, Nedzela.  BROWN – West Indian Dance: Felder, Goines (cl.), Mason, Rampton, Marsalis, Nedezela – Emancipation Celebration: Marsalis, Chess, Henriquez, Nimmer – Blues Theme Mauve – Lee (tenor). BEIGE – Various Themes: Nimmer, Rampton, Mason, Lee – Sugar Hill Penthouse: Nimmer, Nedzela, Lee – Finale: Nimmer, Irby, Printup, Kisor.

 This JLCO version stays close to the 1943 original, not the reworked 1958 version where Mahalia Jackson sang “Come Sunday.” Here Brianna Thomas delivers an emotive vocal  on “Blues Theme Mauve” while Eli Bishop recalls the Ray Nance’s violin work on the 1958 version of “Come Sunday.” Speaking of Brianna Thomas, she has deep relationships with Marsalis and others in the orchestra. She is a Lincoln Center jazz regular oft compared to  Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter and Dianne Reeves, singing ballad standards, cabaret music, scat singing, and blues. She specializes in the 30s-style swing music and has her own quartet based in NYC. 

So, this is likely not the first time you’ve heard of Ellington’s great work. Yet, surprisingly it hasn’t received this kind of facelift in over 60 years. In the history of orchestral jazz, it still remains the penultimate work, as is certainly reflected here by the JLCO.

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