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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  • 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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