Duke Ellington’s Symphony in Black, Starring a 19-Year-old Billie Holiday in Her First Filmed Performance

In Sep­tem­ber of 1935 Para­mount Pic­tures released a nine-minute movie remark­able in sev­er­al ways. Sym­pho­ny in Black: A Rhap­sody of Negro Life is one of the ear­li­est cin­e­mat­ic explo­rations of African-Amer­i­can cul­ture for a mass audi­ence. It fea­tures Duke Elling­ton and his orches­tra per­form­ing his first extend­ed com­po­si­tion. And per­haps most notably, it stars Bil­lie Hol­i­day in her first filmed per­for­mance.

The one-reel movie, direct­ed by Fred Waller, tells the sto­ry of Elling­ton’s “A Rhap­sody of Negro Life,” using pic­tures to con­vey the images run­ning through the musi­cian’s mind as he com­posed and per­formed the piece. Elling­ton’s “Rhap­sody” has four parts: “The Labor­ers,” “A Tri­an­gle,” “A Hymn of Sor­row” and “Harlem Rhythm.” Hol­i­day appears as a jilt­ed and abused lover in “A Tri­an­gle.”

Hol­i­day’s only pre­vi­ous screen appear­ance was as an uncred­it­ed extra in a night­club scene in the 1933 Paul Robe­son film, The Emper­or Jones. Sym­pho­ny in Black was pro­duced over a ten-month peri­od. Hol­i­day was only 19 when her scenes were shot. She sings Elling­ton’s “Sad­dest Tale,” a song care­ful­ly select­ed by the com­pos­er to fit the young singer’s style. “Sad­dest tale on land or sea,” begin the lyrics, “Was when my man walked out on me.” In the book Bil­lie Hol­i­day: A Biog­ra­phy, author Meg Greene calls the per­for­mance “mes­mer­iz­ing”:

Sym­pho­ny in Black marked an impor­tant mile­stone in the devel­op­ment of Bil­lie Hol­i­day, the woman and the singer. Elling­ton’s deft han­dling enabled Bil­lie to dis­tin­guish her­self from oth­er torch singers. She did not wear her emo­tions on her sleeve; instead, she revealed her­self grad­u­al­ly as the song unfold­ed. Hers was a care­ful­ly craft­ed and sophis­ti­cat­ed per­for­mance, espe­cial­ly for a woman only 19 years old. This care­ful­ly woven tapes­try of life and music was the ori­gin of the per­sona that audi­ences came to iden­ti­fy with Bil­lie. Oth­er singers such as Frank Sina­tra and Judy Gar­land may have more suc­cess­ful­ly estab­lished and cul­ti­vat­ed an image, but Bil­lie Hol­i­day did it first.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Bil­lie Hol­i­day Sings ‘Strange Fruit’

Bil­lie Holiday–The Life and Artistry of Lady Day: The Com­plete Film

Duke Elling­ton Plays for Joan Miró in the South of France, 1966: Bassist John Lamb Looks Back on the Day

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Comments (5)
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  • Keido says:

    I’m not sure but I seem to remem­ber read­ing that the man who push­es Bil­lie Hol­i­day down (around 3:50) is a young Scat­man Crothers. Any ver­i­fi­ca­tion on this wild rumor?

  • Mike Springer says:

    Hi Kei­do,
    I under­stand that’s actu­al­ly Earl “Snake­hips” Tuck­er, a pop­u­lar dancer in Harlem dur­ing the 20s.

  • Keido says:

    Thanks for the clar­i­fi­ca­tion, Mike. Can’t recall where I read the mis­in­for­ma­tion re: S. Crothers.

  • Mark Conlan says:

    I don’t know who plays Bil­lie’s unfaith­ful boyfriend in the “Tri­an­gle” sequence, but it does­n’t look like the same per­son as the dancer in the “Harlem Rhythm” finale, who IS Earl “Snake Hips” Tuck­er. I’ve loved this movie since I first saw it in the 1970’s, not only for Bil­lie’s haunt­ing con­tri­bu­tion but as a sort of pen­cil sketch for Duke Elling­ton’s lat­er sym­phon­ic mas­ter­piece, “Black, Brown and Beige,” which also opens with a work song, con­tains a church sequence and a blues song, and clos­es with a depic­tion of (then) present-day African-Amer­i­can life. Bil­lie Hol­i­day record­ed her song in Octo­ber 1934, less than a year after her first ner­vous record­ings with a Ben­ny Good­man stu­dio band in Novem­ber and Decem­ber 1933 (“Your Moth­er’s Son-in-Law” and “Riff­ing the Scotch”), and dur­ing that year she devel­oped from just anoth­er “hotcha” singer of the peri­od into a deep, rich artist. I some­times wish Duke would have hired her as his band singer — the cocoon Elling­ton built around his musi­cians might have pro­tect­ed her from some of her lat­er bad habits — except he already had one of the great jazz singers of all time, the crim­i­nal­ly under­rat­ed Ivie Ander­son, in his band.

  • Jamie Aditya says:

    I believe the actor who push­es Bil­lie over in the street in the Elling­ton movie is def­i­nite­ly Scat­man Crothers..As it looks like him.,his gait , his bowlegs..his face. It is all Crothers to the T. Where­as Earl “Snake Hips” Tuck­er who appears lat­er in the film has dif­fer­ent facial fea­tures and is not bow legged as Crothers is. As a huge Scat­man Crothers fam I believe it is him for sure! ;)

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