DUKE ELLINGTON MUSIC SOCIETY
05/2 August-November 2005
Our 27th Year of Publication.
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Dating "SYMPHONY IN BLACK"
"Symphony in Black" (Paramount Headliner A5-3) was copyrighted 12Sep35 and released the following day. The actual dates when the soundtrack was recorded and when Duke Ellington's scenes were filmed aren't found in any reference work, nor in the files of the music department of Paramount Pictures, nor in Film Daily, Motion Picture Herald or any other periodical I've canvassed. Nevertheless, enough clues have now been gathered--and they'll be revealed here--that Ellington's soundtrack to Symphony can finally be dated to a single month: October 1934.
Ellington's scrapbooks, today preserved at the Smithsonian, contain two clippings that bear on Symphony's origins. One, from the 14Sep35 issue of Film Daily, notes that Symphony was made "at the Astoria Studio," viz., Paramount's Eastern Service Studio at 35-11 35th Avenue, Astoria, Queens. The other, from the 31Jan36 issue of The Kansas City Call, notes Symphony "took 10 months to complete."
Bearing in mind that Ellington spent January 1935 away from the New York area, the following report, from the 26Jan35 Pittsburgh Courier (section II page 9), establishes that Symphony's soundtrack dates to 1934, while some dramatic scenes weren't filmed until 1935: "There is a Paramount short [by Ellington] tentatively titled 'Black Rhapsody,' now in preparation. The music for this piece has been finished but it awaits photographing of the acting to fit the mood of the composition."
The presence of Freddie Jenkins both on the soundtrack and on screen dates both the soundtrack and the filmed scenes of Ellington's band to 1934, as Jenkins left the band just before Christmas 1934 on account of tuberculosis (Chicago Defender city edition, 29Dec34, page 6), and didn't return until 1937.
Here is a list, compiled in collaboration with Ken Steiner, of the various dates in 1934 when the band appeared in the New York City area together with dates when Ellington was likely in the northeastern U.S. area, but for which details are presently untraced:
29Jun34 to 12Jul34: Capitol Theatre (Broadway and 51st St.)
7-13Sep34: Majestic Theatre, Bridgeport, CT
12Sep34 (1:00 to 5:00 a.m.): Brunswick recording session, NY
5-11oct34: Apollo Theatre, Harlem
12oct34: daytime untraced
(evening dance, State Ballroom, Boston, MA)
(Ellington visited Washington D.C. 20oct and/or 2loct)
16-22Nov34: Valencia Theatre, Jamaica, Queens
7-13Dec34: Apollo Theatre, Harlem
15-18Dec34:Ritz Theatre, Elizabeth, NJ
19-27Dec34: "The band is taking the Christmas week free"
(per Chicago Defender national edition, 5Jan35, page 8)
In January 1935, the studio prepared a cue sheet for Symphony that is today held in the archives of the music department of Paramount Pictures. It reads as follows:
SYMPHONY IN BLACK (Duke Ellington)
Para. News Lab Jan. 1935
West 43rd St.
____________ ____________ ____________
PARAMOUNT PRODUCTIONS, INC.
A COMPOSITION OF NEGRO MOODS
Duke Ellington Entire
Milsons Music Corp. Inst. Vocal Visual
Aside from the overall title "A Composition of Negro Moods"--a title encountered nowhere else--the document is of interest for the note "Inst. Vocal Visual." There being just one vocal in the film, that by Billie Holiday, this comment appears to establish that her soundtrack work was completed by "Jan. 1935."
Thus the date "12Mar35," which has often been cited for the Ellington/Holiday soundtrack recording of Saddest Tale (aka"Blues"), just doesn't seem possible. The date first appeared in print circa 1979 in a discography of Billie Holiday by Jack Millar. During a 4Dec91 phone conversation, I asked Millar where he found it. In a letter dated 5Dec91, he replied that in "the very late 60s, I got hold of a 16mm sound copy of the film short 'Symphony in Black.' [ ] and I mentioned the fact that I had it to [Roger Morris] a friend who was chief projectionist at one of the local cinemas who said he would find out what he could about it. He wrote away to some 'British Film Board,' or some such name (being in the trade he knew where to get the information) and after maybe two or three weeks, he came along with some details written down on a piece of paper, which he left with me, giving the date the Billie part was made, (note in her book Billie says it took more than one day), and the date of release, plus the fact that the BBC had acquired the rights in 1960." Millar related that the cinema had since closed.
In a follow-up letter dated 4Feb92, Millar continued: "I did finally track him [Morris] down to his last place of employment [ ] Unfortunately things are never as easy as we would like them to be, his source died some two years ago, killed in a motorway accident, by a lorry while changing a punctured wheel. His name was Norman Kirk and he was a film historian employed by the British Film Institute?"
Millar suggested I make inquiries of the British Film Institute, which I haven't done because frankly it seems a bit of a wild goose chase. (However: anyone with access to the BFI is encouraged to look in the vertical files of their library/archive and report back to DEMS.)
The evidence I've managed to locate--apart from the claim that Millar relates, which I don't regard as firm--indicates the band was both recorded and filmed in October 1934. I've found no firm evidence that suggests that Billie Holiday overdubbed her vocal in some later month. Because the overdubbing process entailed the loss of a generation of fidelity to the track being dubbed over, best results were obtained by recording the band and vocalist simultaneously. As this was then the preferred method of working, Holiday was likely a participant at the October 1934 prerecording session.
While Billie Holiday plus the usual complement of 14 Ellingtonians are heard on the soundtrack, 10 additional men, drawn largely from the ranks of the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, were added for filming. Klaus Stratemann ("Duke Ellington: Day by Day and Film by Film," page 119) identifies the following MBRB members: Red Allen; Joe Garland; Benny James; O'Neil Spencer. Franz Hoffmann ("Henry 'Red' Allen/J.C. Higginbotham Discography," page 32) identifies Red Allen; ?Henry Hicks; ?George Washington; probably Crawford Wethington; Joe Garland; Benny James [an identification that Hoffmann tells me he now disavows]; Hayes Alvis; O'Neil Spencer.
Henry "Red" Allen's presence on screen is a clue that helps date the filming of Symphony's concert hall sequences to October 1934. Allen had been a member of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra from June 1933 until at least 1oct34, when the band played Pittsburgh's Savoy Ballroom. (That Allen was still in the band that night was noted in the 6oct34 issue of the Pittsburgh Courier, a citation found in Walt Allen's "Hendersonia" on page 300.) Red Allen's earliest documented appearance with the MBRB was at their 4oct34 Columbia recording session. Obviously then, Symphony's concert hall sequences, in which Allen appears, weren't filmed prior to his joining the MBRB in October 1934. (Allen apparently recalled the film as "Rhapsody in Black," this according to a profile of Allen, based on an interview by Douglas Hague, that appeared in the Aug55 issue of Jazz Journal.)
That filming of "Symphony in Black" took place in October 1934 is ultimately confirmed by a report found by Ken Steiner in the "New York after Dark" column of the Chicago Defender (3Nov34 city edition, page 8): "Duke Ellington just made another short. There's no stopping him!"
According to a New York Age advertisement (6oct34, page 4), Ellington appeared at the Apollo Theatre from 5oct34 to 11oct34 in a revue that Clarence Robinson produced called "Fast and Furious" which additionally featured Ed Green, Bea Foot, 3 Patent Leather Kids, Ralph Cooper, and the famous 16 Apollo Rockets. Also on the bill was a 78-minute feature film, "Half a Sinner" starring Joel McCrea. The ad doesn't disclose how many shows were staged each day, but in 1934 there were four shows a day according to Ralph Cooper (with Steve Dougherty, "Amateur Night at the Apollo," page 68). The Ellington band's duties during their week at the Apollo Theatre likely kept them in Harlem from shortly before noon until around 11 p.m. each day (the last stage show began at 9:45 p.m.), so any film work in Astoria that week would have to be scheduled at odd hours with tired musicians and crew, hardly a surefire recipe for achieving optimal results.
The band's schedule during their weeks at the Capitol Theatre (29Jun34 to 12Jul34) and the Majestic Theatre in Bridgeport (7-13Sep34) were probably equally demanding to that of the Apollo. Moreover, the band's theatre appearances would have taken place during normal hours for film production thus making any concurrent film work by the band difficult and possibly more expensive for the film makers.
While Ellington's band was, so far as is known, free during the daytime hours of 12oct34, the MBRB were otherwise engaged. Besides their regular job at the Cotton Club, during the week of 12-18oct34 they doubled at the Harlem Opera House with the Cotton Club revue alongside Lena Horne, Lethia Hill, 10 Dancing Demons and others; a short film and a feature were also on the bill (New York Age advertisement, 13oct34, page 4).
Note that Ellington's band appeared at the Apollo the week of 5-11oct34, while the MBRB appeared at the Harlem Opera House the week of 12-18oct34. Thus, the only days in October when both bands were in the general New York area and free of daytime engagements were 19-29oct34, which observation dates the filming of the concert hall scenes with the MBRB's members.
While filming of the concert hall scenes is thus firmly dated to October 1934, the film's soundtrack--on which only Billie Holiday and Ellington's 14 regulars are heard--could arguably date from 29Jun34 to 12Jul34, 3-13Sep34 or October 1934.
Standard procedure, when making films of musical performance, was to first prerecord the soundtrack and then film to playback. Accordingly, production normally began with a soundtrack prerecording session. If the report in The Kansas City Call that Symphony "took 10 months to complete" was accurate, production would have begun 10 months prior to the film's 13Sep35 release with a prerecording session held in mid-November 1934, but a mid-November start is ruled out by the 3Nov34 Chicago Defender report that "Duke Ellington has just made another short." It follows that work on Symphony most likely began in October 1934, 11 months prior to the film's release, and not in early September (one year prior), early July (14 months prior) or late June.
Note also that prerecording and filming to playback were scheduled in close proximity on every one of Ellington's other film shorts for which production dates are known, and in that context any delay greater than several days between prerecording and filming to playback would be exceptional.
Given our present knowledge of Ellington's itinerary, he and the band could have been available for recording and/or film work on the following days in October 1934: 5-11oct34 (the band's busy schedule at the Apollo Theatre probably precluded any work on Symphony that week); 12oct34 (as the band had since spring 1933 enjoyed hardly any time off in New York City to spend at home with their families, this was likely a free day for the band, who would appear that night at the State Ballroom in Boston); 17-20oct34; 22-27oct34; 29oct34. I assume that the studio was closed on the two Sundays, 21oct34 and 28oct34. Monday, 29oct34, the last possible day when scenes were shot on the concert hall stage, can be ruled out as a possible date for a prerecording session, considering that--as will be discussed--filming on the set took place on two separate days, and the prerecording session wouldn't have been scheduled on the last day of filming.
CONCLUSION: Ellington's soundtrack to "Symphony in Black" was recorded in October 1934, probably circa 17-27oct34. Further itinerary research may narrow this window.
Klaus Stratemann (op. cit., page 119) noticed that Symphony's concert hall scenes are the product of two distinct filming sessions, one with Ellington's 14 regular players, the other with the expanded 24-piece group: "In a medium range shot at the start [and at the end] of A Hymn of Sorrow, [Lawrence] Brown appears to be seated in the left middle row, holding a trumpet (!). In the same scene, altoist Johnny Hodges is seated next to Harry Carney, with two men removed from between them vis-à-vis the full band shots. This suggests that Ellington's regular band--without the additional men--was used for just this camera angle, in retakes, possibly." Additionally, note that only regular Ellingtonians appear in the shot at the end of Saddest Tale ("Blues"). The 24-piece group is seen in all other shots taken on the concert hall set. (Given the cost of building and striking a set this large, I believe one may reasonably assume that all scenes filmedon this set were filmed in October 1934.)
On Saturday 20oct34 and/or Sunday 21oct34 ("over the weekend" according to the Baltimore Afro-American, 3Nov34; see DEMS 05/1-7), Ellington visited his mother in Washington D.C. He doubtless told her of the film he was making, one she wouldn't live long enough to see.
Some additional observations about "Symphony in Black":
Shortly after Red Allen joined the MBRB in October 1934, Benny James, the MBRB's guitarist, was replaced by Lawrence Lucie. The guitarist seen in "Symphony in Black," and also in "Bundle of Blues," is Benny James according to Klaus Stratemann, but Franz Hoffmann--who has recently discussed this with me--and I both now wonder how Klaus arrived at this identification. The mystery guitarist (and isn't that a four-string tenor guitar he's playing?) certainly isn't Lucie. Ruth Ellington was of the opinion that he resembles Clarence Holiday.
The eccentric dancer featured at the conclusion of Symphony is unquestionably Earl "Snake Hips" Tucker. But I believe that reference works are mistaken in asserting that Tucker also plays the pimp (or boyfriend from hell) seen earlier in the film, the man who abuses the character played by Billie Holiday.
In chapter five of "Lady Sings the Blues," Holiday vividly recalled the mistreatment she received at this actor's hands: "He knocked me down about 20 times the first day of shooting. Each time I took a fall I landed on the hard old floor painted to look like sidewalk. And there was nothing to break my fall except the flesh on my bones. The second morning when I showed up at the studio I was so sore I couldn't even think about breaking my falls I must have hit that hard painted pavement about 50 times before the man hollered 'Cut'."
Yet in her book Billie recalled this actor as "a comedian who'll kill me because I can't remember his name." "Snake Hips" Tucker was no comedian, but a legendary eccentric dancer with a famous and never-duplicated style. Given the extensive coverage Tucker received in the entertainment pages of the 1930s black press, it's difficult to believe that Holiday would ever forget his name, especially if they had ever worked together. And why was Holiday, writing in 1956, worried that the actor would kill her--was she unaware that Tucker had died in 1937 at an early age (of "intestinal ailments" per "Jazz Dance" by Marshall and Jean Stearns, page 238)--or could it be that the man who repeatedly flung her to the ground in 1934 (or 1935) was someone other than "Snake Hips," perhaps some obscure comedian who Holiday believed was still alive in 1956?
The photo of "Snake Hips" Tucker that appears in "Jazz Dance" looks to me to be a different man than the actor who plays the pimp in Symphony, especially when comparing the hairlines. (While Tucker is also seen at the conclusion of "Symphony," he is shot from odd angles such that his head isn't seen in close-up.) Also, while the real "Snake Hips" is built like a gymnast, the actor who plays the pimp looks spindly, at least to my eyes. The Internet Movie Database identifies this actor as "Scatman" Crothers (1910-1986). Since his uncredited "appearance" in Symphony seems to have also gone unnoticed in the 1930s press, and Crothers was working in the midwest in 1934-35 according to various websites, one wonders who supplied the identification and on what basis.
The uncredited actress who plays the "other woman" in Symphony's romantic triangle and dances with the actor who plays the pimp, is identified in reference works as Bessie Dudley, but in DEMS 02/2-10/1 I showed evidence that she may actually be Florence Edmondson. While I don't think this actress looks like Bessie Dudley, film archivist Mark Cantor think she does. An invitation for additional opinions was extended through DEMS three years ago, but no additional opinions have been volunteered. All one has to do is compare "Symphony" with "Bundle of Blues," filmed 19 months earlier. Bessie Dudley is definitely in "Bundle"--but is she also the dancer in "Symphony"? Can anyone tell us anything about Florence Edmondson....or perhaps supply a photograph?
Steven Lasker, 5Aug05
I'm Checkin' Out - Go'om Bye
See DEMS 04/3-16 and 03/3-7(22)
Steven Lasker has sent me a photograph of the record label of Columbia 35208B, the 78 on which I'm Checkin' Out - Go'om Bye was first issued, together with some background information on American usage concerning hyphens and dashes, taken from the Chicago Manual of Style (15th edition, 2003). He invites me to write a follow-up piece on this discussion. Steven is obviously keen for me to keep busy in my retirement, which is most touching. So here goes.
The interesting thing about the title on the label is that it is not quite the same as Steven suggested in DEMS 03/3-7(22). Nor is it quite as Sjef wrote it in his follow-up to my remarks in DEMS 04/3-16. Every letter is a capital, following the standard practice on 78s, whereas I have only capitalized the first letter of each word. But apart from that, the spelling and the punctuation are exactly as in the heading above. There are three apostrophes, as shown; there's a dash between 'Out' and 'Go'om' (it's as small as a hyphen but it's well enough spaced out to be unquestionably a dash); and there's nothing at all between 'Go'om' and 'Bye'. So that settles it, though as Steven cautions on page 6 of DEMS 03/3, titles on record labels aren't necessarily definitive. Which brings us back to his proverbial dart.
There are two words 'outgo', and either could be hyphenated between the 't' and the 'g'. 'Out'go' (emphasis on 'out') means 'expenditure' and is familiar in the derivative 'outgoing(s)', the opposite of 'income'. 'Outgo' ' (emphasis on 'go'), means either to 'come to an end' or to 'surpass, outstrip', and is familiar in the adjective 'outgoing' ('the outgoing president' or 'her outgoing personality'). Neither applies to our title, where the relevant ideas are clearly 'checking out' and 'goodbye'. We are dealing then, not with a hyphen but with a dash. Thus, the punctuation mark itself, however short, must be spaced apart from the words 'Out' and 'Go'om' since its purpose is to separate the two ideas, not draw them together as a hyphen would. It is very short, but very clearly spaced, on the Columbia record label.
A teacher of English writes: "Of the uses of the dash proposed in Eric Partridge's guide to punctuation 'You Have A Point There', the one in I'm Checkin' Out - Goom Bye comes closest to the dash denoting an abrupt ending, for decisive emphasis (RKP edition, 1977, pages 70-71, paragraphs 5, 6, 7). The song title is American of course, not English, and Columbia 35208B is an American record label, but I don't think that American and English practice differ much in this use of the dash. 'The Chicago Manual of Style' (15th edition, 2003) looks at the dash rather differently, but paragraphs 6.88 and 6.89 (pages 263-264) include the uses covered by Partridge on pages 70-71. The Chicago Manual also distinguishes between the 'en dash' and the 'em dash', dealing with the former in paragraphs 6.83-6.86. Since its discussion starts, 'the principal use of the en dash is to connect...' and since all the examples it gives have this connecting purpose, my feeling is that an en dash is a hyphen by another name. In her recent book on punctuation 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' (Profile Books 2003, p168) Lynne Truss says that many people want to abolish the hyphen. Maybe. But you can't do this simply by calling it something else and carrying on using it.
Next, the three apostrophes. The first two are straightforward apostrophes of omission, representing the 'a' of 'I am' and the 'g' of 'checking'. Whether or not Ivie and Rosemary sound the 'g' of 'checking' in their diction is irrelevant.
A teacher of English writes: "In most English accents (and, I suspect, in most American ones too), the 'g' in words like 'singer', 'checking', 'tongue', is more or less 'swallowed'. There are exceptions to this in parts of the English West Midlands and North West. Here Rosie or Ivie would be called a 'singguh' and natives of Birmingham (never Birmingham, as in Alabama) pronounce their city 'Birmingg'm'. (See 'An Atlas of English Dialects', Upton and Widdowson, OUP 1996, Map 17 and commentary)."
The third apostrophe is more problematic. If 'Go'om Bye' is simply an eccentric spelling of the word it is obviously based on, there's no call for an apostrophe of omission between the two 'o's', since nothing is being omitted. But you would expect 'Goom-bye', as in 'good-bye', or 'Goombye', as in 'goodbye' (both forms are acceptable). Is there an American regional accent in which 'd's' turn into 'm's' in this position? I don't know of an English one, though it is true that both 'd' and 'm' are prone to the same 'swallowing' in 'goodbye'/'goombye' as is 'g' in 'checking'.
To conclude:- Duke's title, as it appears on the label of Columbia 35208B, is quite straightforward to the left of the dash, but to the right of the dash it is most odd, read as a quirky variant on 'goodbye'/'good-bye'. And if it is more than such a variant, a mystery remains. What is this strange pairing of an unknown word 'go'om' with an apostrophe whose purpose, if any, is obscure, and a 'bye' with no hyphen or apostrophe where you might expect one? Is there a clue in the very last line Ivie sings on the record itself? 'I'm cuttin' out' means 'I'm checkin' out'; 'old man' is rendered by OM; 'Go' Bye (or 'Go! 'Bye!') is the logical consequence of 'I don't dig you'. I know Duke liked multi-layered titles, but this seems most devious. Great record though, which is what matters.
A teacher of English writes: "This seems pretty far-fetched, but we come back to the proverbial dart if we try to decide which of the various mis-spellings of 'goodbye' is the 'correct' mis-spelling. One of the few hard-and-fast rules of grammar is the rule which states that there are very few hard-and-fast rules of grammar."