Duke, Black Beauty, Florence and me

(Originally written for the Duke Ellington Society (New York) newsletter in the late 1990s)

I recently became one of the small band of Australian members of TDES, New York. Some members may already have encountered me through my Florence Mills research activities on Internet groups like Duke-LYM and 78-L. When Morris Hodara suggested I contribute an article for the newsletter my first reaction was to prepare a precis of a fairly lengthy article I recently had published about Florence Mills. On second thoughts, as the article is accessible (details later), I decided it might be of some interest if I recounted how, through Duke Ellington, Florence Mills has become the dominant theme of my life, leading me to Paris, London, New York, Washington and various other places.

I grew up in Dublin, Ireland, born 27 February, 1937. As an introverted 16 year old high schooler in the early fifties I was addicted to popular music on the radio. My tastes were unsophisticated; the latest Top Twenty songs - Doris Day, Guy Mitchell, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Frankie Laine etc. I listened to local stations in Ireland, and the BBC, plus Radio Luxembourg, a commercial service aimed at England. After a while I discovered that I could also tune in to stations of the American Forces Network (AFN), operating out of a number of cities, Frankfort, Munich, Bechtesgaden.

With AFN a subtly different selection of popular music was available. There were lesser known singers, not from the Hit Parade, like Lee Wiley, Mel Torme, Toni Arden, Geri Southern, June Christie, whose style appealed to me. There were also a higher proportion of instrumentals, with a completely different sound from the popular English dance bands. I soon began to recognise and listen for names like Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter.

At some point I realised these people were playing the much maligned music called jazz. If so, I was definitely a jazz fan. I found I didnít have to be an American service-man to write to my favourite DJs and request these musicians. Of the several DJs I listened to the only name that comes to mind now was (I think) Sgt. Ken Donegan, who styled himself "The Mad Baron of Bebop". I still recall my twinge of embarrassment when the DJ who played my request for "Warm Valley, the one with Johnny Hodges", commented somewhat acidly "Is there any other?"

Before long the whole world of jazz had opened up for me; Louis Armstrong in movies like The Strip and The Glenn Miller Story, a galaxy of stars in The Benny Goodman Story. Right from the start Ellington was a firm favourite, especially with Johnny Hodges. The 1941 band with Take the A Train, Harlem Airshaft, Cotton Tail, Portrait of Bert Williams, KoKo and other great tracks was my most played LP. The big American bands were banned from England in those years but there was a loophole. They could include Dublin in their European schedule and English musicians, starved for the real thing, would flock across the Irish Sea to hear them. So it was that my first taste of a real big band was Woody Hermanís Fourth Herd at Dublinís Theatre Royal in 1954. It wasnít Ellington but a big thrill none the less.

It wasnít till about 1964 that I finally got to hear Ellington, Hodges and the gang live, at The Hammersmith Odeon in London. By then I had taken on career and marriage responsibilities and, though my passion for jazz was undimmed, I no longer spent hours reading about it to keep up with all the latest trends. Free jazz passed me by. I lived in four different countries and lost and rebuilt my record collection several times. Then, in 1992 at age 55, I decided to retire early from a high pressure career and pursue other options. This coincided with the advent of CDs and a new opportunity to explore old interests.

Naturally Ellington CDs featured strongly on my shopping lists. In particular, I began to focus a bit more on the earlier years, the Twenties and Thirties, with great tracks like Black and Tan Fantasy, East St Louis Toodle-oo, Creole Love Call and wonderful vocals by Adelaide Hall and Ivie Anderson. The big revelation however was Black Beauty, which for some curious reason I had never previously heard. As soon as I heard it, (the version of March 26, 1928) it instantly became my favourite Ellington piece. Being devoid of technical musical skills my reactions are largely on an emotional level and I found that this piece moved me as only a very few others had ever done. The jaunty vitality of the opening solos on trumpet (Whetsol), trombone (Tricky Sam) followed by an exhilarating piano and bass duet (Duke & Wellman Braud),and ending with the contrasting wistful sadness of Bigardís clarinet, made a powerful emotional cocktail.

I found that my inexpert judgement was confirmed by some notable experts - a few samples: "Clearly one of Ellingtonís gems . . . a complete and extraordinarily shapely piece of music" (Dan Morgenstern, CD album notes); "one of Ellingtonís most beautiful compositions" (Gunther Schuller, Early Jazz ); "Black Beauty ranks as one of the orchestraís most resplendent compositions" (John Edward Hasse, Beyond Category)

Perhaps the most telling reaction was that by one R.D. Darrell, a classical music expert who was one of the first people to appreciate Ellingtonís importance. Reviewing, in the Phonograph Monthly Review, the newly released Black Beauty and Take it Easy he enthused: "The curiously twisted and wry trumpet passages, the amazing piano solo in Black Beauty, the splendid melodic urge that animates even the most eccentric measures, are all characteristic of his unique genius for the expression of an overwhelming nostalgia and bitterness in a new idiom, and one entirely his own." In 1932 when Darrell wrote a lengthy and perceptive essay on Ellington, he gave it the title Black Beauty (See Mark Tucker, The Duke Ellington Reader Page 57).

My first reaction was to seek out as many versions of Black Beauty as I could find. Given its original popularity this could have turned out to be a daunting task. According to research by William Randle Jr (in Black Entertainers on Radio, The Black Perspective in Music, Spring, 1977):

"there were no fewer than 210 Ellington broadcasts during the years 1927-1930, most of them coming from New York, a few from Chicago. The songs played most frequently. . . were "Black Beauty", "Black and Tan Fantasy", "The Mooche", "East St Louis Toodle-oo", "Three Little Words", "Creole Love Call", "Diga Diga Doo," and "St. Louis Blues."

However, after that period Black Beauty became a less frequent item in the book, though always around. Timner (Third edition) shows that up to 1970 Ellington recorded it on thirteen occasions, sometimes with two takes. This includes the beautiful version of 1939 under Cootie Williamsí name.

So far I have collected a total of 23 versions, 10 by Ellington and 13 by a varied assortment of artists including 2 from Sweden, 2 from Australia, 2 English versions, 2 by Howard Aldin, one stride guitar and a variety of others. Gathered together on a single cassette, they offer a remarkable example of just how different the same jazz piece can be, even when done by the same musicians on the same day, let alone widely separated by geography and time.

In addition to collecting versions, I also read avidly anything written about Black Beauty. I soon found it was Dukeís tribute to an obscure singer and dancer named Florence Mills, who died tragically young in 1927, leaving no trace via records or films. My curiosity was piqued; who was this person? I thought I had known the names of all the great black female performers of the 20s. Apart from the great blues singers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Ida Cox, I had records of Adelaide Hall, Josephine Baker, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, Eva Taylor, and had read anything I could find about them. Florence Mills meant nothing to me but someone who inspired this response from Duke Ellington must be somebody special.

A new obsession emerged - I must find out everything I could about Florence Mills. A revisit to biographies of Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, Lena Horne, Paul Robeson revealed that they all considered her one of their greatest peers, though the amount of information on her was tantalisingly small. On a visit to London a friend produced a book of old Vanity Fair material that included the first picture I had seen of Florence, the famous portrait by Edward Steichen that was one of only two full page pictures of black people to appear in that magazine in the Twenties, the other being of Robeson. In spite of all this I found that there had never been a biography of Florence Mills.

By now I was thoroughly hooked. I had just completed a graduate diploma in professional writing and embarked on my first project (to do with chess) but I now decided it was more important to unravel the story of this enigmatic, forgotten star of the Twenties. I sucked all the local libraries dry of any relevant material, jazz biographies, vaudeville, black culture etc. I scoured through reels of microfilm of The New York Times, The London Times and any other materials available at the Australian National Library that might be relevant. I checked Library catalogues through the Internet, resulting in a valuable haul of press clippings from The Schomburg Institute and The Philadelphia Free Library.

The story that emerged was an extraordinary one, only briefly summarised here. Born into one of Washington D.C.ís worst slums, Florence Mills was a child star by 4 years, a touring Vaudeville performer by 7, then taken from her family and institutionalised for being an under age performer. A few years later, living in a Harlem slum, she was performing with her sisters at the tough Lincoln Theatre before going on the road, still a teenager., She spent many years on the black vaudeville circuit, forerunner of the infamous TOBA. She wound up on her own in Chicago, where she teamed up with Bricktop, performing alongside the legendary Tony Jackson, Alberta Hunter, Mezz Mezzrow and other jazz figures. After many years of hard apprenticeship on the travelling circuits she finally found fame and fortune at age 25 when she became an overnight sensation in the great black musical Shuffle Along, in 1921.

Following Shuffle Along she became the hottest property on Broadway; the first black female superstar. She amazed contemporaries by rejecting an offer of a starring role in Ziegfeld Follies because she could do more for her fellow black performers by starring in all black shows built round her. She became the first black performer to top the bill at The Palace Theatre, the acme of vaudeville, then went on to greater heights in Paris and London, becoming the toast of aristocracy and royalty. In London she was an outspoken advocate of equal rights for blacks, a staunch supporter of the NAACP. Through it all she remained a shy, unassuming person who was loved by all for her gentle personality and unfailing generosity. Her death on November 1, 1927 from an appendix condition, neglected because of her professional dedication, caused a paroxysm of grief in Harlem. It was followed by the largest funeral ever seen there.

Having briefly summarised the Florence Mills story, I want to come back to the Duke Ellington link again. Early on in Music is my Mistress when Duke describes what New York meant during his Washington days, he gives a list of more than fifty names of the great talents that awed him and his friends, including Bessie Smith, Ziegfeld, Bert Williams etc, but the first name on the list is Florence Mills. At Carnegie Hall in 1943 his portraits of the all time greatest black performers included Florence, along with Bert Williams and Bojangles Robinson (a close personal friend of Florenceís.) It is clear then that Duke held Florence in very high esteem.

When he came to New York in 1923 Florence was at the height of her fame, starring in her own show at The Plantation. Apart from her overseas absences in 1923, and again in 1926-27, they were both performing in New York. Duke actually played at the Plantation on occasions, though possibly while Florence was on the road elsewhere (Ethel Waters temporarily replaced her - and introduced Dinah.) They had mutual friends - when Florence came to New York in 1921 her friend Bricktop got her a job at Barron Wilkinís club; Likewise, when Duke came in 1923, it was again Bricktop who got him a job at Wilkinís. More generally, all the performers living in Harlem in those days tended to congregate at the same after hours clubs. Nevertheless, my researches have not so far uncovered any evidence that Duke Ellington and Florence Mills actually met. If any member of TDES knows of such evidence I will be eternally grateful to have it drawn to my attention.

The plot thickens even further. I have recounted how it was my fascination with Black Beauty that led to my obsession with Florence Mills. There is no doubt that it is Dukeís tribute to Florence, as he even called it Portrait of Florence Mills at Carnegie Hall in 1943. In any case most authors who write about Ellington and Black Beauty assert quite clearly that he specifically wrote it as his tribute to her following her death, including Mercer Ellington, Stanley Dance, James Lincoln Collier, Barry Ulanov, Ortiz Walton, Don George. Several even drew cultural significance from the fact that, as early as 1928, Duke was using the words "black" and "beauty" to honour a black woman. However, in a phone conversation I had with John Edward Hasse last year he raised the point that the original recording was also titled Firewater, suggesting some question about the origin of the piece. I didnít attach much significance to this, believing it might be a reflection of the suggestion in some sources, probably untrue, that Duke got the original idea for Black Beauty from an earlier theme by Bubber Miley.

The next step came when I corresponded this year with a number of Ellington authors, seeking assistance with the puzzle of a Duke/Florence meeting. In the course of this Mark Tucker queried the existence of any link between Black Beauty and Florence Mills prior to Carnegie Hall, 1943. In The Duke Ellington Reader (Page 155) he had made the point that Duke intended to do a Portrait of Florence Mills featuring Johnny Hodges but, running out of time due to problems with Black, Brown and Beige, he substituted Black Beauty late in the piece. My initial reaction was to point to all the authors above who "knew" that it was written explicitly for her in 1928. However, revisiting all of these, I realised they were all writing from a retrospective viewpoint, post 1943 by a long way.

So I have to accept that Mark is right; there is no direct evidence, pre 1943, to show that Duke had Florence Mills in mind when he wrote Black Beauty. Three possibilities exist: (i) He wrote it for her and some evidence exists to prove it, (ii) He wrote it for her but no direct evidence exists to prove it, and (iii) He did not associate it with her until 1943. My own feeling on the subject is probably best summed up by what I wrote to Mark:

In the meantime I still believe there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to support the link:
(1) 'Internal' evidence: Black Beauty has a two part structure which beautifully reflects the dual themes of the vivacious dancer and a wistful lament for her tragic early death. Coming so soon after Florence Mills sensational death it's hard to escape the conclusion there's a connection. Further evidence for this is to be found in the short movie Black and Tan (1929) where Black Beauty is used as the dancing theme for Freddi Washington's beautiful young dancer who dies tragically. Both Duke and Freddi knew Florence (Freddi danced in Shuffle Along with Florence and was a friend of hers); the connection seems very obvious.
[Mark pointed out later that Black Beauty, though strongly featured, is not actually Washingtonís dance theme, which is Cotton Club Stomp.]

(2) Carnegie Hall 1943 may be the first public nominal connection between Florence and Black Beauty but Duke's 'portraits' were intended to be very explicit portrayals of the figures to whom they were dedicated. It's highly unlikely Duke would have let himself run out of time for the planned Florence Mills portrait if he didn't know he already had to hand, in Black Beauty, a piece which already specifically encapsulated the person he was portraying.

(3) In the immediate aftermath (ie within less than a week) of Florence's death many people wrote musical tributes to her (Clarence Williams and Eva Taylor, Fats Waller, Andy Razaf, Juanita Stinette plus others). Generally these were tearful tributes of dubious intrinsic musical worth (though I quite enjoy some of them). Sadly we can't tell if Fats' effort was better that the rest as it was destroyed without being issued. Duke actually provided the musical accompaniment for some of them (The Marguerite Lee sessions noted on Page 216 of Ellington, the Early Years). Given Duke's documented high regard for Florence Mills (See Music is my Mistress, Page 36, The Duke Ellington Reader, Page 131) it's difficult to believe he wouldn't have thought he could do a better job.

Whatever the facts may be, Black Beauty still is Dukeís Portrait of Florence Mills and a great expression of his regard for her. Even if my efforts to find a pre 1943 link produce no results I will still incline to the belief that he wrote it with her in mind.