Randall Keith Horton

Randall Keith Horton conducting Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts at Boston University on Jan. 16.

Credit: Alexandra Wimley, Boston University

Noted Boston Composer Jazzes It Up: Duke Ellington's 'Black, Brown and Beige'

February 28, 2017

Duke Ellington is revered as one of the most influential and widely known jazz musicians in America. His compositions and band pieces brought him a slew of posthumous awards and recognition. Though Ellington wasn't a Boston native, the Hub served a vital role in his musical career that spanned more than 50 years. Duke Ellington chose Randall Keith Horton, a Dorchester native, to be his composing and conducting assistant. Horton describes his connection with Ellington as a calling.

It was a light [that] went inside of me and told me ‘Go to San Francisco and study music’," Horton said. "Those exact words and that led me to Ellington.


Ellington and Horton would meet in San Francisco in 1965. Years later, in 1973, Horton says Ellington personally invited him to conduct one of Horton’s own compositions.

Horton would eventually recreate Ellington’s concerto-grosso orchestration titled “Black, Brown and Beige” after Ellington died in 1974. Horton says Ellington wrote “Black, Brown and Beige” as a three-movement composition meant to represent three stages of African American history.

The first movement ‘Black’ represents the enslavement of African Americans. ‘Brown’, the second movement, represents the life of Black Americans after the Emancipation with cultural influences of the West Indies, ushering in the evolution of the blues. The third and final movement ‘Beige’ represents "the acculturated negro" as Horton puts it.

Ellington premiered the composition at Carnegie Hall on January 23, 1943. Horton says the audience didn’t take well to the piece- uncomfortable with the sounds of jazz filling up an acclaimed classical music hall.

Horton says Ellington was regretful to perform the piece in its entirety again until he performed and recorded it five days later at Symphony Hall in Boston on January 28, 1943.

WGBH’s Eric Jackson, host of the jazz program ‘Eric in the Evening’ says the distributed version of ‘Black, Brown and Beige’ was from that recorded performance in Boston.


The tapes from the Carnegie Hall concert were damaged and [they] actually used the first few minutes of the Boston concert when they reissued the work



“It’s actually Boston that you’re hearing at the first few minutes of that concert”, says Jackson.

Duke Ellington’s strong connection to his faith also helped draw poignant parallels to the significance of faith in the narrative of Black history.

Compositions added later to “Black, Brown and Beige” demonstrate those parallels as heard in lyrics performed by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson in ‘Come Sunday’.

To listen to the entire piece narrated by WGBH’s Marilyn Schairer, click the audio link above.

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