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Charles Bruffy, conductor

With special guests MCC Performing Arts Center Jazz Ensemble (MPJE)
Nick Manson, director & piano

Sacred Concert
by Duke Ellington (1899-1974)
arr. by Høybye/Pedersen

Black & Tan Fantasy
Praise God
Lord’s Prayer

  1. To be contended 
  2. Freedom 
  3. Word you heard 
  4. Freedom is a word
  5. Sweet, fat and that
  6. Freedom—Svoboda
  7. To be contended

The Shepherd
The Majesty of God
Come Sunday
David danced before the Lord
Almighty God
Praise God and Dance

From an early age, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) was steeped in the vibrant mix of sacred and secular music within Washington, DC’s African American community. He would explore these musical connections throughout his life, but nowhere more prominently than in his Sacred Concerts of music, which occupied the bulk of his attention from 1965 to 1974—the last decade of his life.

Ellington received the commission for his first sacred concert from C. Julian Bartlett, Dean of Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal church in San Francisco. Bartlett, a longtime jazz fan and native of New Orleans, wanted Ellington’s large-scale liturgical work to be part of the “Festival of Grace,” a series of concerts celebrating the church’s 1964 consecration. For this first Sacred Concert, Ellington composed five new movements revolving around the four-word phrase, “in the beginning God,” which serves as a unifying musical and thematic topos throughout the Sacred Concert. Ellington used a six-note theme for the phrase’s six syllables, and as he explained in his own notes to the original concert, “we say it many times, in many places.” He paired these with five movements he had composed for previous works.

On Thursday, November 10, 1966, Duke Ellington and his Orchestra brought this first sacred concert to Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix, Arizona. At that time, Trinity Cathedral was a declining urban church, and much of its congregation was steeped in Phoenix’s local politics and community functions. The original Patron’s List from the 1966 Trinity sacred concert included the names of Senator and Mrs. Barry Goldwater, Mr. and Mrs. John Pritzlaff, and Governor Elect and Mrs. Jack Williams. Several local businesses were also listed, including Arizona Flower Shop, which remains a thriving Arizona business to this day, and Universal Memorial Center, a Phoenix-based funeral home owned and operated by Phoenix civil-rights leaders Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale.

In a letter written a week before Duke Ellington was to appear at Trinity, Canon Harold Weicker—the producer of the sacred concert—writes, “We felt that this concert was important to Phoenix for two reasons: because it is beautiful music and because Mr. Ellington and what he stands for is a great witness to any person who sees and hears him.” Weicker, months before called his dear friend, Reverend Jack Yaryan of Grace Cathedral, and asked if he thought it would be possible to bring Duke Ellington to Phoenix. Yaryan gave Weicker Duke Ellington’s hotel phone number and Weicker gave Duke a call. Canon Weicker remembers thinking that his call would be blocked or that Ellington would simply not answer, but the switchboard operator answered and put his call through.

Duke Ellington’s whirlwind weekend in Phoenix began with two performances of the sacred concert at Trinity—a discounted 6:00 pm performance for local students, and an 8:30 pm performance for community members and local VIPs. Over the next three days, Ellington and his Orchestra performed at Star Theatre (now Celebrity Theatre), held two masterclasses for local jazz and folk music groups in Bishop Atwood Hall, and ended the weekend with a dance at Del Webb’s TowneHouse.

Canon Ray Dugan, longtime Trinity member and chorister in the original sacred concert in Phoenix, recounts singing with Duke Ellington and choir conductor Herman McCoy with great fondness. In a recent interview, Dugan said, “the concert was one of the highlights of my life. It was really thrilling, and I was very excited. We were all excited. We had been rehearsing for this [sacred concert] for some time.” Canon Dugan also recalled the sold-out shows and overall success of the Trinity concerts—a memory with which local print media agreed. In the Saturday paper, Reverend Robert M. Herhold of Dove of Peace Lutheran Church in Tucson wrote, “Drummer Sam Woodyard’s cymbals were loud and when trumpet player ‘Cat’ Anderson reached his highest, piercing note, Ellington leaned over to the microphone and said: ‘That’s as high as it will go.’ Gabriel couldn’t have praised the Lord with a better horn.” In the end, the sacred concerts made lasting impressions on all those who witnessed Duke Ellington’s moving music in Trinity Cathedral.

Ellington’s Concerts of Sacred Music coincided with two major, interrelated movements in jazz during the 1960s: more explicit engagement with the civil rights movement and themes of black liberation as well as the composition of liturgical “sacred jazz” works across multiple denominations and faith traditions. Both of these trends were marked by an increase in large-scale multi-movement jazz works. Max Roach and Oscar Brown’s We Insist!: The Freedom Now Suite (1960), featuring vocalist Abbie Lincoln, was composed to commemorate the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963, and features five movements detailing African Americans’ emergence from bondage, continued oppression under Jim Crow Segregation, and emerging sense of African diasporic consciousness and solidarity with all oppressed descendants of the continent of Africa. In 1962, Mary Lou Williams’ Catholic liturgical hymn Black Christ of the Andes premiered at St. Francis Xavier Church for a “civil rights mass” in honor of Martin De Porres, the Peruvian Saint. The Catholic Church’s embrace of Williams’s music was tied to the Catholic Church’s Vatican II reforms, which encouraged a shift toward vernacular worship. Along similar lines, Ellington’s first Sacred Concert was to put forward a message reflecting Grace Cathedral’s mission to welcome all comers.

Following Ellington’s own practice in the 1960s and 70s, the Phoenix Chorale’s commemorative concert blends movements Ellington wrote for the three Sacred Concerts with earlier selections that evoke the sacred in a variety of ways. The principal melody of Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy,” which opens this concert, follows the contour of the sacred song “The Holy City” recast as a minor mode 12-bar blues. The growls, shouts, and moans of trombonist “Tricky Sam” Nanton and trumpeter Bubber Miley, as evocative of an African American sanctified church service as a Harlem rent party, contribute the piece’s ambiguous message: is Ellington’s “Holy City” the biblical Jerusalem referred to in the original song’s chorus or the raucous, mixed race “black and tan” Harlem speakeasies to which Ellington’s title refers? This freedom of sonic movement between sacred and secular embodies a central organizing principle of African American music: the connection between “Saturday night” and “Sunday morning.” This principle refers both to the lived experiences of working musicians, who have long moved between Saturday night club gigs straight to their Sunday church jobs, and to venues that would clean up after an all-night party and re-set their chairs for the Sunday morning church service. “Black and Tan Fantasy” is thus an important exploration of the porous boundary between the sacred and the secular that fascinated Ellington throughout in his career.

“Praise God” and “Heaven”, come from Ellington’s second Sacred Concert, which premiered in New York City at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in early 1968. At the time, Ellington was reeling from the death of his friend and long time collaborator Billy Strayhorn, who was responsible for such notable Ellington hits as “Take the A Train” and “Satin Doll.” “Praise God,” written to feature Harry Carney on baritone sax, exemplifies one of Ellington’s most distinctive traits as a composer: his ability to write music specifically to feature individual players’ strengths. Indeed, Ellington’s unique compositional palette arguably stems from his ability to enshrine his musicians’ idiosyncratic musical gifts in his compositions. The dissonances and leaps in the vocal line for “Heaven” certainly evoke something other-worldly, which Ellington juxtaposes with instrumental interludes that evoke urban soundscapes here on Earth.

Though it did not appear in the original Grace Cathedral concert, “The Lord’s Prayer” closed the 1966 Phoenix performance at Trinity Cathedral. Ellington’s a capella setting of “The Lord’s Prayer”, prominently featured on his third Sacred Concert, seems on face a stylistic departure from his familiar big band, but his unique harmonic language is still present as are a number of gripping, unexpected twists and turns in the setting’s melodic contour.

Also from the second Sacred Concert is the multi-movement Freedom Suite. Whether Ellington intentionally evoked Roach and Brown’s Freedom Now Suite is unclear, but from the outset Ellington clearly demonstrates his familiarity with the soulful hard bop aesthetic that shaped jazz’s Afrocentric reconnection with its roots in the African American blues tradition. The emerging genre’s influence on Ellington is perhaps even more prominent in “The Shepherd”, whose principal melodic motive bears a striking resemblance to “Moanin’”, Bobby Timmons’ iconic 1958 hard bop anthem. Unmistakably Ellington, but still well in line with the contemporaneous innovations of Roach, Art Blakey, and others, these pieces demonstrate perhaps the most striking truth about Ellington as a composer: he made a distinctive and meaningful contribution to emerging styles in each of the six decades of his professional career.

This concert’s pairing of “Come Sunday” and “David Danced Before the Lord” places together the two pieces that bookended the original Sacred Concert. “Come Sunday” was the central theme of Ellington’s Black, Brown, & Beige (1943), an extended concert suite premiered at Carnegie Hall. In this work, Ellington crafted, in his own words “a parallel to the history of the American Negro.” Toward that end, the piece presents celebratory narrative of racial uplift, the ideology advanced by Alain Locke, W.E.B. Du Bois, and other notable black intellectuals and artists during the Harlem Renaissance. Like the Sacred Concerts, Black, Brown, & Beige remained a living, evolving work throughout the composer’s life, and Ellington extended the work’s “Come Sunday” section for the 1958 commercial recording of Black, Brown, & Beige featuring gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. While Ellington had not previously regarded it as such, the lyrics he wrote for Jackson’s “Come Sunday” performance clearly re-rendered the piece as a sacred work. “David Danced Before the Lord” is a celebratory, uptempo re-casting of the “Come Sunday” melody that sets the biblical text (2 Samuel 6:14). Ellington composed this piece for the tap dancer Bunny Briggs, who Ellington introduced at the original Sacred Concert as “the most super leviathanic, rhythmaturgically syncopated, tapstermaticianismist.”

This concert closes with “Praise God” from Ellington’s second Sacred Concert. In many ways it encapsulates the hallmarks of Ellington’s style when composing large-scale works. Employing an episodic structure common to jazz “rhapsodies,” it moves between scenes which employ different tempos, moods, and jazz idioms. Latin rhythms figure prominently in several sections offering an allusion both to jazz’s past, pointing to the “Spanish tinge” of jazz’s roots in the Caribbean port city of New Orleans and to jazz’s future as a broadly diasporic, even global form of musical expression.

© Program notes by Dr. Christopher J. Wells; edited by Ryan Downey.