Duke Ellington Sacred Music Concerts Bless Seattle

Originally published in Earshot Jazz December 2011

Seattle has been blessed to be able to hear the Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts performed live every winter for the past 22 years. No other city can make that claim. But this year the piece “99% Won’t Do,” written by Ellington in 1963, takes on added significance with the Occupy Wall Street protests.

The 23rd annual Duke Ellington Sacred Music Concert takes place on Monday, December 26, 2011 at Town Hall with the Seattle Jazz Repertory Orchestra giving its 17th performance of this music. The 17-piece ensemble will be joined by vocalists Everett Green and Nichol Eskridge who sang together on the sold out 2009 and 2010 concerts. Eskridge also sang on the 2005 concert and appears on the CD Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra: Sacred Music of Duke Ellington. The cast is rounded out by the Northwest Chamber Chorus and tap dancer Alex Dugdale, both participants in the concerts since 2007.

The large number of performers echoes Ellington’s first Sacred Concert to consecrate San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in 1965. Ellington said, “I’m having to bring in a lot of people for it. Because it’s very important. It doesn’t matter to me how many people I have to bring in or what it’s going to cost, or anything like that.”

Jazz critic Ralph Gleason filmed the first Sacred Concert and created a documentary of Ellington’s activities surrounding the event titled Love You Madly. Moved by the concert, Gleason wrote in his book Celebrating the Duke, “I doubt that I shall ever hear Ellington play again, in any context, without thinking of it as religious music.”

Ellington welcomed the invitation by Reverends Julian Bartlett and John Yaryan to perform his sacred music in church. “It’s an option to say something that you want to say. And it isn’t an opportunity that you get every day to be invited into it like I have been… It’s probably the most important statement I’ll ever make. For something that important you need everybody.”

The large cast didn’t mean that all the music would be loud or grand. Ellington wanted a broad palette to make a variety of statements, “whether it’s a loud big thing or whether it’s a very humble little thing like say if a flower talked.”

Despite the serious setting and subject, Ellington kept things fresh and fun. To cap off the performance, he introduced tap dancer Bunny Briggs as “the most super leviathanic, rhythmaturgically, syncopated, tapstimaticianismist.”

Briggs remembers, “Once you see a tap dancer you’ve seen him. But Duke, when he plays, he never plays the same thing… So you’ve got to go along with that music… You can’t do the same steps because the music isn’t there. So that’s what I mean when he makes you think. It keeps you going… You can never grow old up here (pointing to his head). Not with Duke Ellington. He won’t let you. That’s why everybody likes to work for him.”

To Ellington, listening was paramount, whether you were on stage or in the audience. In the same year as the first Sacred Concert, he said in Jazz Journal, “If you love music, then it follows you love to listen to it, which makes the ear the most essential instrument, the most essential musical instrument in the world.”

Ellington developed three Sacred Concerts in the last ten years of his life. The first in 1965 premiered in San Francisco, the second in 1968 in New York, and the third in 1973 in London. Encompassing 45 pieces, the actual program of any performance varied based on venue and available performers beyond the Ellington Orchestra. For example, the New York performance of the first concert added “A Christmas Surprise” played by pianist Billy Strayhorn and singer Lena Horne.

The Sacred Concerts were played by Ellington hundreds of times all over the world. Ellington’s son Mercer, who played trumpet and managed the band, said in A.H. Lawrence’s book Duke Ellington and His World, “He was getting calls from all over the country for us to do the Sacred Concerts. Many times we’d be booked in a large city for a dance. Sure enough, we’d get a request from one of the churches.”

Ellington acknowledged his good fortune in his memoir Music is My Mistress. “As I travel from place to place by car, bus, train, plane…taking rhythm to the dancers, harmony to the romantic, melody to the nostalgic, gratitude to the listener…receiving praise, applause, and handshakes, and at the same time doing the thing I like to do, I feel that I am most fortunate because I know that God has blessed my timing, without which nothing could have happened.”

Blessings flowed to Ellington throughout his life. He got his first major gig at New York’s Cotton Club because the hiring manager was three hours late to the audition, as was Ellington! It wasn’t that Ellington’s Orchestra played better, just that all the other bands had showed up on time and left. “So, I mean, who’s directing this?” asks Ellington.

But for Ellington, serendipity was infused with spirit. Derek Jewell wrote in A Portrait of Duke Ellington, “Before he was out of his twenties, Ellington claimed, he had completely read the Bible four times, and he went through it thrice after the death of his mother.”

Stanley Dance commented on Ellington’s blessings and their impact when delivering the eulogy at the Cathedral of St. John the Devine in New York City. 10,000 mourners attended the funeral inside and 2,500 listened to a broadcast outside. “Duke Ellington knew that what some called genius was really the exercise of gifts which stemmed from God… The Son of God said, ‘…Proclaim the good news to all men.’ And Duke knew the good news was concerts, grateful for an opportunity to acknowledge something of which he stood in awe, a power he considered above his human limitations… He reached out to people with his music and drew them to himself.”

“Ellington’s single-minded dedication to music was a passionate as any saint’s devotion to personal holiness,” wrote Janna Tull Steed wrote in Duke Ellington: A Spiritual Biography. “The immense legacy of Edward Kennedy Ellington, his art and his witness, is entrusted to future generations to appropriate for their own enrichment and blessing.”

Let’s enrich ourselves at Town Hall on December 26.

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