-scale=1.0,maximum-scale=1.0" : "width=1100"' name='viewport'/> Plum Street Chili: A Rhapsody of Negro LIfe

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Rhapsody of Negro LIfe

April 29, 2015 marks the 116th anniversary of the birth of Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington. This year also marks the centennial of Billie Holiday's birth. So to end April, Bede's Beat brings you the very first collaboration between these two giants of American music.

In 1935, an 18 year-old Billie Holiday made her film d├ębut in a 9-and-a-half minute short. The purpose of the short was two-fold: first, it provided a platform for Duke Ellington & His Orchestra to introduce a major work -- A Rhapsody of Negro Life -- whose length exceeded the capacity of the recording and playback technology of the era. Second, the film was intended to be a multimedia representation of the Harlem Renaissance.

The film, like Ellington's composition, is divided into four sections: The Laborers, The Triangle, A Hymn of Sorrow and Harlem Rhythm. Billie appears in the second section, The Triangle.

The short was extremely successful -- it received much positive critical praise and even won the "Best Musical Short Subject" Academy Award for 1935. It is also noteworthy for being the first nationally distributed film by a major studio whose screenplay was written by an African-American.

The studio insisted on appending the "Symphony in Black" to Ellington's original title, which was simply A Rhapsody of Negro Life

A Rhapsody of Negro Life is the predecessor to the far more famous Black, Brown and Beige, which followed 8 years later and which most people think is Ellington's first extended work. Portrait by Les Leffingwell. Prints for sale at the link.

Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life
(1935/9 minutes)