“Sepia Panorama” (1940) Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn

“Sepia Panorama”

Composed by Duke Ellington; arranged by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra on July 24, 1940 in New York.

Duke Ellington, piano, directing: Charles M. “Cootie” Williams, first trumpet; Wallace Jones, trumpet; Rex Stewart, cornet; Lawrence Brown, Joseph “Tricky Sam” Nanton, trombones; Juan Tizol, valve trombone; Otto “Toby” Hardwick, first alto saxophone; Johnny Hodges, alto saxophone; Barney Bigard and Ben Webster, tenor saxophones; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Fred Guy, guitar; Jimmie Banton, bass; Sonny Greer, drums.

The story:

The development of “Sepia Panorama” began with Duke Ellington starting the process by composing two contrasting sections with a total of twenty-eight bars. At that point, he stopped. Previously, he had assigned Billy Strayhorn to make an arrangement on the then (1940) very popular tune “Tuxedo Junction.” Strayhorn worked on this assignment in his usual fashion, which is to say methodically, with clear almost compositional development, and characteristically rich harmonies. But he too could not finish. Ellington then cobbled the two pieces together, adding two twelve bar blues solos, one for Ben Webster (shown at left) on tenor saxophone and the other for Jimmie Blanton on bass. The result is quintessential Ellington, with a number of differing musical episodes pivoting rather abruptly from one to the next. “Sepia Panorama” was used for a time in 1940 by Ellington as a radio theme. (Something to Live For…The Music of Billy Strayhorn, by Walter van de Leur (2002) Oxford University Press, pages 34-35)

The music:  One of the challenges, and joys, of listening to and trying to understand the music of Duke Ellington is to recognize that he so very often did things musically that were unconventional. Frequently this has led to criticism of his music that in my view misses the major, glaring point of what Ellington was intending to accomplish with any given piece. For example, even the most cursory listening to “Sepia Panorama” suggests that Duke (and Strayhorn) (shown together at right – early 1960s) were seeking to create evocative music having a number of contrasts. They were spectacularly successful in doing this. Yet critics who have great understanding of the technical aspects of music seem to have missed the point. The late Gunther Schuller, whose monumental study of the music of the swing era, “The Swing Era…the Development of Jazz, 1930-1945,” contains hundreds of marvelous insights. Schuller presented this analysis of “Sepia Panorama,” at pages 130-131 of that book: “‘Sepia Panorama,’ interesting for its pyramid form (ABC DD CBA), is blessed with some excellent full-toned Blanton work. But starting sans introduction with a phrase more or less borrowed from the third section of ‘Reminiscing in Tempo,’ the piece seems fragmented in its conflicting juxtapositions. Nothing quite leads logically to anything else; the piece lacks the concerted, constructive logic of, for instance, ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,’ or ‘Ko-Ko.’ Even Ben Webster’s mid-point solo, so super relaxed, affable and pleasant, is too laid back in context, and essentially leads nowhere.”

Walter van de Leur, has come closer to understanding Ellington’s modus operandi: “‘Sepia Panorama’ stands as a textbook example of Ellington’s often streetwise composition techniques, infusing nonrelated material by another composer (‘Tuxedo Junction’**), filling up the holes with blues choruses, and restating the same material in a different order. Moreover, the work illustrates how certain elements of Strayhorn’s sound (in this case quatral chords…used by Strayhorn to voice the upper structures of the six-part brass chords, and spice them up with some chromatic inner voice leading), had started to permeate that of his employer. In many Ellington compositions, such as…’Sepia Panorama,’ a kaleidoscopic contrast formed the structuring principle…” Id.                                 

The opening measures of “Sepia Panorama” present the entire Ellington band playing an upward figure that suggests a fanfare which leads into the first of Jimmie Blanton’s (Blanton is pictured at left) bass breaks. The reeds follow, playing a happy riff, followed again by Blanton’s bass. Then Juan Tizol appears playing his doleful sounding valve trombone against the richly voiced reeds, succeeded by Cootie Williams’s plunger-muted trumpet. This scheme is then repeated. Duke’s rhythmic piano chords spring Harry Carney into a robust baritone sax solo, played against riffing brass, led with gusto by Cootie Williams’s open trumpet. Ellington then plays the blues (and his chorus here is superb), abetted by Blanton’s tasty double-time bass interjections. Ben Webster follows on tenor sax with a soulful blues chorus. Carney returns as before, playing against the bright brass. Then Tizol (pictured at right) plays again, with the reeds and Williams’s plunger-muted trumpet. Ellington then reprises the opening fanfare, which leads to Blanton’s bass in dialog with the reeds. A bright tutti sets up the ending, with Duke’s sustained tonic piano tone as the final exclamation point.

Mark Tucker, in his liner notes to the RCA-Bluebird collection of Ellington recordings titled Duke Ellington…The Blanton-Webster Band (1986), in his comments on “Sepia Panorama,” made what I think is a salient point: “Perhaps the title, for a change, can provide a clue to the music–it suggests a spectrum of moods, or different scenes, common to the experience of Afro-Americans. ‘Sepia Panorama’ reflects this in three different blues choruses (with varying degrees of emotional shading), in the contrast between Tizol’s melancholy question and Williams’s gruff answer, and in Carney’s jubilant reaction to the shouting brass.” (Harry Carney is shown at left.)

I agree with Mr. Tucker. Duke Ellington very often reflected in his music what he experienced living in a Jim Crow society where he was given ovations when he was onstage in the white world, and then could not use white-only hotels, restaurants and lavatories. The irony of these contradictions was fully and painfully felt by Ellington. Since he was a master of the blues, it is most understandable then that he would have used that expressive tool, as he does so effectively throughout “Sepia Panorama,” to express his ambivalent feelings about living and working in such a deeply contradictory society.

(**) Actually, “Tuxedo Junction” had three composers: alto saxophonist William Johnson, tenor saxophonist Julian Dash, and trumpeter Erskine Hawkins. These musicians worked together for many years in Hawkins’s excellent band.

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.                                                                                                                                                      

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