Monday, November 27, 2006

More on Duke Ellington

Several people have asked me exactly what sort of Jazz concert I went to at Ely Cathedral on Saturday, and why there was a jazz concert. Here is my synopsis on Duke Ellington and the concert I went to see. As Paul Harvey says, "And now for the rest of the story..."

Duke Ellington was a master jazz composer and musician from the late 1930s to the year he died in 1974. Ellington, of course, grew up to become probably the premiere big band jazz style writer, hitting his peak in the World War II years. As big band jazz went into decline in the 1950's, Ellington struggled a bit, trying to adapt to the new themes that were erupting from the jazz genre.

Interestingly enough, a form Big Band jazz made a brief renaissance in the early 60's, especially with the advent of Las Vegas. By this point in his life, Ellington likewise became hip again, as did Louis Armstrong and others from the vintage 30's jazz era. Ellington had become a very mature writer, mixing and composing a lot of classical and jazz styles. I would argue at this point he hit another peak in his career.

He grew up going to church twice on a Sunday, once with his Baptist mother, and once with his Methodist father. He eventually became an Episcopalian and generally tended to keep his religion to himself until the early '60's when he became increasingly religious. Ellington had been wanting for some time to do a mass setting in the jazz genre, but both because the powers that be in the Churches did not like the thought of mixing sacred and secular music, especially by a black man, Ellington had trouble finding takers on his idea.

Grace Cathedral, the new Episcopal cathedral in San Francisco, commissioned Ellington to write a liturgical work to be performed as a part of the building's year long consecration celebration. This produced the first of three Concert of Sacred Music suites that Ellington produced before he died. To make it more palatable to the "Church music must be sacred music" crowd, Ellington created an interesting religious synthesis of Western Christianity, African gospel singing, bible stories to music, and other 60's era civil rights themes into what became the three Concerts of Sacred Music.

This, of course, kicked off several fire storms of controversy in Church circles. What exactly was appropriate music for church? Does church music have to be traditional "sacred music"? Is black gospel music acceptable in white churches? Well, Christianity did not disintergrate and lightning bolts did not fall from the ceiling. In fact, the concerts were so successful, that huge cathedrals like St. John the Divine in New York had to turn people away because the place was completely packed. When asked about this controversy, Ellington himself would simply smile and relate a story about a girl who came up to him after one of the concerts and said, "You know, Duke, you made me put my cross back on!"

During 1973, the last year of his life, Ellington was finishing his third and final Sacred Concert, and when being pressed by his sponsors as to when he would be finished, The Duke is said to have replied, "You can jive with secular music, but you can't jive with God." Over 30 years later on a different continent, the same is still true and the music Ellington created is still being played in Cathedrals to large crowds.

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