Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Great Acid Shorts: BLACK AND TAN FANTASY (1929)


You can draw a thin but prominent line after a certain moment in jazz history, and the early-sound Duke Ellington short BLACK AND TAN FANTASY (1929) could be the pen. It marks the moment jazz split into sanitized radio 'sweet' music ala Benny Goodman or "the old Maestro" on one hand, and the delirious forward-thinking danger of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Fives on the other. It's the line that separates uptown Manhattan from gritty swingin' Harlem, back in the day when the thing to do was get drunk and dance sweetly in midtown until around midnight, then jet up to Harlem and watch agog, through a haze of reefer smoke, as black artists strut, shimmied and blew the roof off. And in between those two lines, the point of that pen - was Duke Ellington.

Using the big band format to craft elaborate, beautiful, wistful, dark, surreal and elegant yet raw and bluesy compositions that sound fresh and new to this day, he was--especially in the 20s/early 30s (Prohibition made it all so urgent)--supernatural. He'd later become polished and institutional. But back in the late 20s he's like a fancy ship that starts out slow and sweet and is soon taking you to strange lands between life and death.

Duke's first film appearance, Black and Tan Fantasy  reflects this mix of surrealism, existential openness and social commentary. Floating elegantly by in 20 minutes or so, it begins as a piano rehearsal set around an almost-repossessed piano and--after a bit of comedy with a bottle of gin and some piano repossessors--segues into dance numbers on the Cotton Club stage and the lead female dancer, physically and spiritually exhausted, killing herself, Red Shoes-style, in a drugged-out shimmy. Finally she lays dying in a shadowy backstage dressing room. As her last request, she asks that the band, gathered around her like a mix of angels, coffin-bearers and an AA intervention, play "that Black and Tan." This becomes a bedside serenade, kind of like the dwarfs singing to comatose Snow White (the Disney film was still some eight years off, but the Betty Boop version (with fellow Cotton Clubber Cab Calloway singing "St. James Infirmary" as a rotoscoped ghost) was only 4 years off and is even more psychedelic than either, which says a lot about how DMT-enriched fairy tales used to be. 

Alas, most of the versions available online are just the music segments edited together, so you miss the drama of Duke, his dancer Fredi Washington (above) and his trumpeter (Arthur Whetsol) bribing the collection agency piano movers with a quart of bootleg gin. And you miss the backstage drama of the doctor warning Fredi not to dance because of a heart condition, and you miss her psychedelic collapse, but the more complete version can be found in a highly-recommended Kino compilation.

Alongside his fellow masters of Harlem Armstrong and Waller, Ellington's is the perfect music to wind down with after a long crazy night of psychedelic colors and angry inner demons devouring the soul. But while Armstrong focuses on the cheery and fun side of the psychedelic abyss, and Waller the playful trickster flirty side, Duke never shies from plunging down into the obsidian oval with you, wrapping you  up with him and his band in a warm blanket of opiates and starlight, and you're glad for the company, because when it comes to locating the redeeming angel of mercy buried somewhere in the vast core of the dark and lonesome blues, Duke is a magic bloodhound.

The film also offers a rare and precious glimpse of the kind of stuff white patrons would see at the Cotton Club, where the Duke often held court and lithe black Venus-style flappers gyrated in a manner that might be too shocking even for pre-code Hollywood. But Harlem was Harlem, and in this marvelous little 20 minute film, you see just why it mattered, and still should.


Standing at the dawn of the sound age with few surviving peers, BLACK AND TAN FANTASY still crackles with weird, lysergic power. That muted trumpet in the beginning can light up your spine like a Kundalini serpent if you're chemically open to it, so open up! As they used to say at prohibition era parties when the guy arrived with the suitcase full of bootleg bottles, "that man is here!"

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