#111) Black and Tan (1929)
OR “The Gospel According to Duke”
Directed & Written by Dudley Murphy
Class of 2015
The Plot: Duke (Duke Ellington) is an aspiring pianist who can’t catch a break. His girlfriend Fredi (Fredi Washington) lands a gig at a nightclub and arranges it so Duke and his band can perform there too. But Fredi’s heart condition rears its ugly head during the performance, and this look into the Harlem Renaissance gets real depressing real fast.
Why It Matters: The NFR singles out “Black and Tan” as “one of the first short musical films to showcase African-American jazz musicians”.
But Does It Really?: I give it a pass for Duke Ellington’s film debut, as well as its brief but important insight into the beginnings of the Harlem Renaissance. But be warned; for a short featuring several of Duke’s songs, it’s a real downer.
Everybody Gets One: Most of the creatives behind “Black and Tan” appear in Dudley Murphy’s fellow NFR entries “The Emperor Jones” and “St. Louis Blues” (the latter which was shot concurrently with this film).
Wow, That’s Dated: Four words: The Cotton Club Orchestra.
Title Track: The song “Black and Tan Fantasy” appears throughout the short, and is referenced by name before its reprise in the finale.
- Edward Kennedy Ellington got the nickname “Duke” as a child when his mother insisted on him dressing well and having good manners. His elegant appearance did not go unnoticed by his classmates.
- Duke’s leading lady Fredi Washington was by all accounts a very talented actress and performer, but had trouble finding work due to being a light-skinned African-American. She is probably best remembered for playing the mixed-race daughter of the maid in the original version of “Imitation of Life”. Her career also included appearing in the original production of “Shuffle Along” and touring with Josephine Baker.
- Speaking of, Fredi and Duke actually dated at one point, though I’m not sure whether it was before, during or after “Black and Tan”. Washington ended up marrying Ellington’s trombone player, Lawrence Brown, in 1933.
- Arthur Whetsol can play a muted trumpet like nobody’s business.
- You think it was hard for those two guys trying to move Duke’s piano out of the apartment? Wait till you hear about the two guys who pushed it up the stairway…
- The only information I could find about the dance team in this film is that they were a specialty group called the Five Blazers. Such precision.
- Well Cinematographer Dal Clawson clearly had fun with that kaleidoscope camera trick. Either Fredi is ill or those shots are from a fly’s point of view.
- Okay Clawson, enough with the upskirt shot, thank you very much.
- Wow this short is depressing. Now I know why they call it the blues.
- Duke Ellington didn’t make a lot of films after “Black and Tan”, but when he did he was either playing himself or providing the jazziest film scores. And sometimes, in the case of “Anatomy of a Murder”, both.
Listen to This: How could the National Recording Registry possibly pick one Duke Ellington song for its inaugural selection in 2002? The solution; pick them all. The Duke Ellington Orchestra’s RCA Victor recording sessions were all preserved in one fell swoop, highlighting his collaboration with bassist Jimmy Blanton and saxophonist Ben Webster from 1940 to 1942. Perhaps best known of their work is “Take the A Train”.
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