Count Basie vs. The Manhattan Transfer: “A Study in Brown”

Count Basie, a famed jazz pianist and jazz orchestra leader, wrote a tune called “A Study in Brown.” It sounds like the average big band tune, with ample time for piano solos. We can only make inferences about Basie’s reason for that title and tune, such as the fact that jazz’s roots are in improvisation styles popular in African American bands of New Orleans, African rhythms, and the blues. When Duke Ellington wrote “Black, Brown, and Beige” in 1943, the connections and program were more obvious because places in the music clearly imitated the sound of hammers, African American spirituals, and included some lyrics. Listen to how “A Study in Brown” is more elusive to a statement like Ellington’s.[1] 

While the song was not Basie’s most popular and the intent behind Basie’s song is unknown, a few people have covered it. Below is a recording of Larry Clinton and his Orchestra in a recording from 1945. Notice, how the sound is smoother, less swung (except for the solo), and slower. Besides being a primarily white group, does the performance add another layer of meaning to the song? [2]

Furthermore, The Manhattan Transfer has made it popular by adding these lyrics.

[Intro:]
Picture this: Rhythm n’ happiness
Souls in bliss ‘n havin’ fun
(Oh no)
If you can’t there’s nothin’ to it
(Oh no)
I’m thinkin’ I have t’ paint you one

[Verse:]
I’m gonna paint a sepia panorama
So full of life the painting will come alive
Bathed in blues ‘n full of drama
An’ all the swing they needed so they’d survive
I’ll add some tans an’ yellow ocher
Such soul! So full of rhythm
An’ then some orange t’ tone up the black a bit
My goal is to be with ’em
Purple haze t’ lull the smoker
What swing! What syncopation
An cherry red t’ loosen the back a bit
That thing captured a nation

An’ then a mere patina of subtle green
Get down with me – you’ll dig my study in brown
To lighten up the purple n’ tone it down
Get down with me – tell about it all over town
A dancing glow to highlight the subtle scene
Get down with me – Dig how I’m paintin’ the town
An’ there you’ll have a study in brown
My study in brown

Well, git brown!
Oh yeah, brown is the pigment
Well, git down!
Oh yeah, that’s what cha’ really meant
Clown!
Oh yeah, that’s some study

We’re puttin’ down “A Study In Brown”
Coda: (That’s why we’re callin’ it, “A Study In Brown!”)
Git brown!
Oh yeah, brown is the pigment
N’ git down!
Oh yeah, that’s what cha’ really meant
Clown!
Oh yeah, that’s some study

Dig what I mean! It’s in the scene
Guitar solo
What cha’ talkin’ ’bout?
(Rhythm-A-Ning)
That’s my scene rhythm n’dancin’
(Rhythm-A-Ning)
You can add real romancin’
(Yep!)
I’ll come clean,
That’s the way I like it
Why’ start real thin, then put some color in
(Rhythm-A-Ning)
Fuschia hues blended with subtones
(Rhythm-A-Ning)
Spread them blues, blarin’ trombones
(Yep!)
Paint that scene
Just the way I like it
A dab or two, that’s how to do it.

Why’ talkin’ loud, hope people hear why’
Hey dad! Mama’s gonn git ‘cha soon as you git home!
That’s the ticket
But where’d why’fin’ th’ wicket?

Certainly, this adds a layer of meaning, and perhaps not a good layer….On one hand, performing covers gives the music more recognition and audiences. However, the lines add a meaning that wasn’t present in the original song, with words that insinuate a certain situation that brown is “bathed in blues and full of drama…all the swing they needed so they would survive.” The lyrics are a white perception of a black musical lifestyle, and the instrumentation, primarily vocal imitation of instruments, has a much different sound and connotation than the original. Additionally, as Dai Griffiths says in his chapter on cover songs and identity, when comparing white and black performances of a song we can’t “underestimate the asymmetry of power between black and white.”[3] We have to ask questions of power and exploitation when considering the Clinton and Manhattan Transfer covers of a Count Basie song. So, can covers be valuable? Perhaps we can’t go as far to say that they shouldn’t be allowed, but then how can we add layers of meaning with covers without exploiting/wrongly appropriating? How can we communicate the complexity of covers to the average person who will listen to the Manhattan Transfer cover and not even know Count Basie?

[1] Count Basie, performer, One Note Samba, Recorded May 11, 2009, Synergie OMP, 2009, Streaming Audio, Accessed April 6, 2015, http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/1019835. 

[2] This Is Larry Clinton, Recorded June 1, 2010, Hallmark, 2010, Streaming Audio, Accessed April 6, 2015, http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/li_upc_5050457974817. 

[3] Dai Griffiths, “Cover versions and the sound of identity in motion,” In Popular Music Studies, edited by David Hesmondhalgh and Keith Negus, 51-64, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

 

1 thought on “Count Basie vs. The Manhattan Transfer: “A Study in Brown”

  1. Great questions in this post, S. Covers are often problematic for the reasons you mention (although I’m not sure we should go so far as to ask whether they should be allowed at all), and even more problematic is the potentially failed intertextuality you’ve identified in the case of a Manhattan Transfer listener who doesn’t know the original. And while you know I’m a big fan of adding lyrics to instrumental tunes, I have to say I find these lyrics to be painfully ignorant of Basie’s likely original meaning. Given the “painting” theme, the whitewashing going on here is both apt and all the more tragic.

Leave a Reply