Black and Tan (film)

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Black and Tan
Directed by Dudley Murphy
Written by Dudley Murphy
Starring Duke Ellington
Fredi Washington
Arthur Whetsol
Barney Bigard
Wellman Braud
Duke Ellington Orchestra
Tricky Sam Nanton
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release dates
  • December 8, 1929 (1929-12-08)
Running time
19 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Black and Tan, more fully called Black and Tan Fantasy (1929), is a musical short film written by Dudley Murphy that exhibits the ideas and thoughts of the Harlem Renaissance Movement. Duke Ellington's musical talents along with Fredi Washington's extraordinary acting potential make this movie a good example of the emergence of artistic culture found in New York for African-American artists.


Dudley Murphy’s film classic has a tragic plot that features the talents and musical prowess of Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. Throughout the film, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra play noteworthy Ellington pieces such as "Black and Tan Fantasy", "Black Beauty", "The Duke Steps Out", and "Cotton Club Stomp" (uncredited)" as an artist to artist tribute for a fellow great African-American performer, Florence Mills, who died in 1927.

Main characters of the film in the opening scene

The film begins with a scene showing Duke Ellington’s band struggling to get bookings, leaving him unable to make payments on his piano and apartment. Two heavily racially stereotyped black men arrive to take possession of Duke's piano.

In the fictional story, Duke Ellington’s wife, Fredi Washington, a dancer, achieves fame and acclaim far beyond that of the band. She offers the movers ten dollars not to take the piano, but they refuse the payment. When she offers them gin, they leave, promising to speak nothing of this and act as if they know nothing of the piano.

After landing a dancing job at a club, Fredi offers to solve all of Duke Ellington’s problems by offering a venue for his band, but her condition is that she is featured as the starring act, in order to land the pending contract the club is offering.

Unfortunately, the famous and deeply in love dancer has a heart condition that could become more serious if she continues to dance. Warned to give up her career, Fredi boldly ignores her health issues and selflessly assures the Duke that she is healthy enough to perform, which ultimately leads to her dancing herself to death to the Duke Ellington’s tune, “Black and Tan Fantasy”.

In the film there is a heavy emphasis on the music and symbolism of African American influence on jazz, the struggle and rage of the Harlem of the 1920s, and the realities of the era for the African-American people.[1]

Some of the noteworthy compositions of Duke Ellington that are played throughout the film are “The Duke Steps Out”, which features the talents of Arthur Whetsol, who performs an aweing melodic tone with a trumpet solo (although in the actual recording, Bubber Miley performs the solo). During the main part of Fredi’s dance, “Black Beauty” is played, but rather than a sexually appealing performance there is a more profound symbolism found in her dancing. She dances as a contained artistic soul in rage wanting to exhibit her talents fully, which greatly portrays her struggle to shine and perform on film but unfortunately cannot due to her unique skin tone which therefore prevents her from solidly landing traditional Hollywood roles.[2]

Director and cast[edit]

Dudley Murphy[edit]

Dudley Murphy’s father came from old New England and an Irish background, while his mother was from the South of the US. His parents were also artists, who met in Paris in the 1890s while studying at the Academie Julian. During the 1890s, American artists were virtually required to have European training and influence in their works. Dudley Bowles Murphy was born in 1897 in Winchester, Massachusetts, on the northwestern edge of greater Boston. After working as a journalist, Dudley Murphy started to create films in the early 1920s. Murphy is best known for his pieces, "St. Louis Blues” (1929) with Bessie Smith, “Black and Tan Fantasy” (1929) with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, “Confessions of a Co-Ed” (1931), “The Sport Parade” (1932) with Joel McCrea, and “The Emperor Jones” (1933), with Paul Robeson.[3]

The transformation of the view towards African Americans is very prevalent in his works. The willingness to cooperate and work together with African American actors, performers and artists shows the strength and talent that they had on white people, as Dudley Murphy was a well-known director who acknowledged and recognized the talents of the black individuals.

Duke Ellington[edit]

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born in April 29, 1899 and died May 24, 1974). Throughout his world-renowned musical career he composed over 1,000 pieces ranging in variety of genre from jazz and classical music, to popular music and film scores. Many jazz fanatics and American music whizzes consider Duke Ellington as an aggrandizer of jazz to a respectable art form by making it become on par and exceed other conventional categories and standard genres of music. He was also known for his unique use of an orchestra in his music. Black and Tan shows a demonstration of his musical genius in the incorporation of an orchestra in his jazz pieces throughout the film. The film was the first film appearance for Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.

Duke Ellington had propinquity for keeping things new and becoming far from familiar. In Black and Tan the actual music piece “Black and Tan Fantasy” is very different from other traditional recordings of the song. It is the only rendition and version that exhibits a solo by Barney Bigard using the clarinet as the melodic instrument during the song. And to further portray the sadness of the Fredi’s death, Duke Ellington uses elements of the Gospel musical genre from pieces such as, “Cotton Club Stomp”, “Hot Feet”, and “Same Train”.

Duke Ellington was a significant figure and played a monumental role during the Harlem Renaissance. Being one of the most successful African American musicians and actors of this era, Duke was viewed as a definite sense of pride and role model for Young African Americans and the whole Harlem Renaissance movement.

Fredi Washington[edit]

Fredericka Carolyn “Fredi” Washington was one of the first black actresses to gain recognition for her work on stage and in film. "Black and Tan" was her film debut. In "Imitation of Life" (1934), a film nominated for an Academy Award, she played Peola, a mulatto who sought to pass as a white, while in real life she declined opportunities to pass as white to further her film career. She was considered too light skinned and elegant to play stereotypical maid roles. Returning to the stage, she tired of offers to play white female or tragic mulatto roles, and became an activist, writer, and outspoken supporter of Negro rights and improved working conditions for Negroes in the American film industry.[4]

Duke Ellington's Orchestra and the Cotton Club[edit]

The Duke Ellington Orchestra is commonly viewed as one of the greatest Jazz groups of all time. Over the course of fifty years they managed to compose and perform the greatest American Jazz classics known today. Originating in New York City, the band cycled through many names such as "The Washingtonians", the "Kentucky Club Orchestra", and "Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra". Not until after the 1930s was this band officially named "Duke Ellington and His Orchestra".

During the Harlem Renaissance, a night club called the Cotton Club was the most famous nightlife venue during the whole era. The racially segregated cotton club served as a prime venue for all artistic forms revolving around the stereotyped black identity. Even in the center of Harlem there was a fine line between white and black performances. In front of all white audiences, African Americans were only allowed to exhibit "jungle music" and their forms of art were exploited. Duke Ellington acted as a composer and musician and took over in the early years of the Cotton Club and was pressured to create music that would become revolutionary during that time period. Instead Duke Ellington embraced the concept of black stereotype viewed upon by white Americans, and created phenomenal recordings and music for white audiences to hear and enjoy. Their success came from the ability for Duke Ellington to adapt and aggrandize any style of music ranging from jazz to the "jungle" music performed for white audiences at the Cotton Club. Rising as a band leader he formulated one of the most talented groups and orchestras that played at the Cotton Club. Duke Ellington and His Orchestra were a huge success and brought the name of the Cotton Club to renowned fame during the Harlem Renaissance.[5]

Because of his contributions and leadership, it became the most popular club in Harlem during the 1930s. Duke Ellington and His Orchestra played here for a residency of about four years and created revolutionary music that is still revered today. The most memorable performances and sounds include the new style of "jungle" music created by the musicians of the orchestra. Trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton and trumpeter Bubby Miley, created a growl technique derived from brass playing. Other notable musicians in the orchestra were Johnny Hodges, who played the alto saxophone and was famous for his more than sensual tone. Another notable musician was the baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, who was widely acclaimed for his ability to mix and match scales with tremendous speed and agility. And last but not least the clarinetist Barney Bigard. The fame of this band not only tore through Harlem and New York, but the talents of these individuals swept the nation and led to international acclaim after recording of the Cotton Club were radio-broadcast around the world.[6]

Notable orchestra members in the film[edit]

  • Arthur Whetsol - primary member and jazz trumpeter. He performed in all of the musical compositions featured in the film.
  • Barney Bigard - a jazz tenor saxophonist and clarinetist.
  • Wellman Braud - the bassist.
  • Tricky Sam Nanton - trombonist known for his revolutionary use of the "wah wah" in the swing genre of music.


  1. ^ Paghat the Ratgirl. "Black & Tan". Wild Realm. Retrieved 15 November 2012. 
  2. ^ "Movie Reviews, Black and Tan 1929". The New York Times. 2010. Retrieved 15 November 2012. 
  3. ^ Delson, Susan (2006). Dudley Murphy: Hollywood Wild Card. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9780816646548. 
  4. ^ Rush, Sheila (June 30, 1994). "Fredi Washington, 90, Actress; Broke Ground For Black Artists". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 June 2013. 
  5. ^ "Duke Ellington and His Orchestra". The Red Hot Jazz Archive. Retrieved 15 November 2012. 
  6. ^ "The Duke Ellington Orchestra". Retrieved 15 November 2012.