The 2015 Sacred Music of Duke Ellington Concert

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The 2015 Sacred Music of Duke Ellington Concert

Saturday, December 26, 7:30pm
Town Hall Seattle
1119 8th Ave (First Hill)

Not a great deal is known about the private life of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. The man who became the musical voice of an era, and who would become known simply as “The Duke,” was an incredibly private person, even within his own family. But we do know that he was a religious man. Growing up, his mother took him to church twice each Sunday. He is reported to have read the Bible seven times.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that the man who gave the world such songs as “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and “In A Sentimental Mood” spent a good portion of the later years of life at work on music that reflected his spiritual leanings.

Ellington’s “Sacred Concerts” series originated when the Reverend at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral approached The Duke about composing a liturgical work for the church. Ellington accepted and got to work on a composition that would combine jazz, spirituals, gospel music, dance, and narration in dramatic fashion. His familiarity with biblical texts and theatrical experience no doubt proved useful in this endeavor. The work also functions as a kind of staged pageant.

In the first concert, which premiered at the Grace Cathedral in 1965, the phrase “In the Beginning God” appears throughout as a kind of idée fixe, either sung by the choir or played as a six-note motif in a variety of instrumental formats. Since the piece is a bit like a suite built around songs and interludes, the “In the Beginning God” phrase serves as a unifying element that ties the diverse set of arrangements together.

Ellington composed two more Sacred Concerts in the ensuing years. (Contemporary “Sacred Concerts” are often assembled from material drawn from all three.) The final one, composed in the last year of life (and after he had been diagnosed with lung cancer), premiered at London’s Westminster Abbey and dedicated to the United Nations. It was in the opening remarks to this concert that Ellington made his oft-quoted statement – both a declaration and a defense – that “Every man prays in his own language, and there is no language that God doesn’t understand.”

For the past 26 years Earshot Jazz has helped make Ellington’s “Sacred Concerts” a staple of the Seattle holiday season’s musical fare. The concert features the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, vocalists Stephen Newby and Nichol Veneé Eskridge, the Northwest Chamber Chorus directed by Mark Kloepper, and tap-dancer Alex Dugdale.

Founded in 1995, SRJO is the Northwest’s premier big band jazz ensemble. Co-directed by drummer Clarence Acox and saxophonist/arranger Michael Brockman, SRJO specializes in recovering classic jazz performances through note-for-note transcriptions. Acox is a nationally recognized educator and director of bands at Garfield High School. Brockman teaches at the University of Washington and did his doctoral work on Ellington’s orchestration techniques.

Nichol Venée Eskridge is a minister of music and appears with the SRJO on their Sacred Music of Duke Ellington CD. Stephen Newby holds a doctorate in musical arts and serves as director of the Gospel Choir and the Worship Arts Ensemble at Seattle Pacific University. Tap dancer Alex Dugdale is a product of the jazz programs at Eckstein and Roosevelt, as well as the Eastman School of Music.

– Jeff Janeczko

Tickets for the 2015 Sacred Music of Duke Ellington Concert available now at earshot.org.