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(Credit: William P. Gottlieb)


Watch Duke Ellington’s 'Symphony in Black', starring a 19-year-old Billie Holiday


1935’s Symphony in Black is remarkable for a number of reasons. Not only was it one of the earliest explorations of African-American culture made for a mass audience, but it also features a young jazz singer called Billie Holiday in her first-ever filmed appearance.

Duke Ellington was one of the most pioneering jazz artists to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance. He is perhaps best known for composing the sultry jazz standard ‘In A Sentimental Mood’. However, he was also a composer of orchestral works. Indeed, the same year he wrote ‘In A Sentimental Mood’, Ellinston filmed a one-reel short adapted to a concert piece called ‘Symphony In Black’.

Featuring a vocal performance by Billie Holiday, Symphony In Black depicts Ellington composing, rehearsing and performing the concert piece of the same name with the help of a large jazz orchestra. Ellington’s rhapsody, one of the many shorts produced by Paramount’s Astoria studio in Long Island, is divided into four movements: ‘The Laborers’ ‘A Triangle,’ ‘A Hymn of Sorrow’ and ‘Harlem Rhythm,’ with Holiday making her appearance as a forlorn lover in ‘The Triangle.’

The first movement sees Ellington reel off a sombre melody coupled with footage of manual labourers shifting heavy sacks in cramped tunnels. ‘The Triangle’, meanwhile, offers a miniature narrative – itself divided into three parts – about a complex love affair. it is here that Billie Holiday performs her jazz aria. While clearly lip-synced, the brief turn is essential viewing for all Holiday fans.

‘A Hymn of Sorrow’, the third movement, is distinctly elegiac in mood, leading some to suggest that it was inspired by the death of Ellington’s mother earlier in 1935. The final movement, ‘Harlem Rhythm’, is an up-tempo finale featuring danceable rhythms, leaving the audience with a note of strident optimism. Be sure to check out Symphony in Black if you haven’t already.