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Duke Ellington – Symphony in Black


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Duke Ellington – Symphony in Black

Requirements: 500-word minimum (about 2 pages, double-spaced, 12-point font, 1-inch margins)
Background: Duke Ellington’s Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life, made into a short film in 1935, seeks to portray the life, history, and culture of African-Americans in music. It also stands out as a longer form jazz composition, with four main parts and introductions and interludes between them. Ellington’s decision to call it a symphony asserted that jazz music is an art form on par with European classical music. The instrumentation is mostly that of a typical big band, with a rhythm section, trombones, trumpets, and saxophones. The singer in this recording is Billie Holiday.
Assignment: How does Ellington portray the lives, history, and culture of African-Americans through music in Symphony in Black? You can, of course, use the film to help you figure this out, but base what you write about on the music, not the visuals. What African-American musical traits and genres do you hear in this piece, and how does Ellington’s band present them in their own unique way? What stylistic traits of jazz do you hear? Finally, what does Ellington do to give coherence to the longer form of this piece?


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