Composed almost 100 years ago by Duke Ellington and trumpeter Bubber Miley, Black and Tan Fantasy is still a beloved jazz standard, prompting one recent YouTube commenter to call it “one of the most important songs of the 20th century” and another to say, “This needs to be played at my funeral.” The song has typical Ellington cross-genre touches, including a reference to Chopin’s Funeral March and playful wah-wah trumpeting that makes it a perfect song for, yes, a funeral — but also a celebration of people who are still alive.
In 1984, when artist Dewey Crumpler was deciding what sort of mural to paint on one of the Fillmore District’s most prominent walls, Black and Tan Fantasy became the focal point. Duke Ellington is in the center of A Celebration of Black and Tan Fantasy, dressed in a bow tie and playing keys that are practically jutting from the mural. But Ellington is joined by a spate of other African-American artists and musicians, including Louis Armstrong and dancer Katherine Dunham, and by symbols of Africa itself — including a mask from Benin and a reference to the Malian city of Timbuktu, which was a scholarly hub of African and Islamic culture in the 1400s. Crumpler’s mural is on the outside wall of the African American Arts & Culture Complex.
“It was the celebration of a people,” says Crumpler, an associate professor of painting at the San Francisco Art Institute.
Because the African American Arts & Culture Complex “is an institution about the African creative process” and features a theater for plays and other cultural activities, Crumpler says he made the mural “a celebratory relationship to Black aesthetic culture. I was suggesting that this is a framework that comes out of the cultures of Africa.”
But the mural was also raising questions, says Crumpler: “At that time, it was also questioning the hegemony of Western culture. Western culture dominated the aesthetic field up until really the 1990s. [The mural] was designed to have Black people or anybody else come down the street and see this thing that wasn’t totally understandable and maybe try to figure it out. By using images that people weren’t that clear about, it would be powerful enough to make them say, ‘Who is that?’ ”
Crumpler, a Berkeley resident who grew up in San Francisco and formerly lived in both the Fillmore and the Bayview before leaving the city in 1972, has prominent murals throughout his native city, including at the Joseph Lee Rec Center in the Bayview and inside George Washington High School. He used to hang out at the African American Arts & Culture Complex. Like Ellington’s and Miley’s tune, Crumpler’s mural is still going strong — though Crumpler worries how much longer A Celebration of Black and Tan Fantasy will exist in a district that is losing its Black character through gentrification.
“The new community that’s moving [to the Fillmore] is going to feel more and more uncomfortable once they have a better toehold on the city,” Crumpler says. “They may tear the building down. Or if [the mural] is not moved now, they’ll request for it to be moved because their children have to grow up in that environment, and they may feel that kind of work doesn’t represent their children. But I understand. Times change.”