Beyond Category: Ellington's Sacred Concerts
By Thomas May
Gracing the cover of Time magazine on August 22, 1956, was an illustration of “Jazzman Duke Ellington.” Instead of merely rehearsing a list of triumphs from his already legendary past, the cover story described a “second wind” that found Edward Kennedy Ellington “once again bursting with ideas and inspiration.” But few could have predicted the path his inspiration would follow in the final decade of his life, when he surprised the music world with a series of three Sacred Concerts.
A key element of Duke Ellington’s genius was his capacity to remake himself, to undertake bold new challenges in response to the changing cultural landscape. Yet in a profound sense the project of composing, preparing, and performing these concerts also involved a return to roots: musically, personally, and spiritually. As a child, Ellington had received encouragement for his extraordinary gifts by his mother, Daisy, and his father, James. Both parents were themselves highly musical, and young Duke must have recognized from an early age that music was a language shared across denominational differences — whether at the Baptist services his mother attended or those of the A.M.E. Zion congregation to which his father belonged.
In Duke Ellington’s America, a fascinating cultural portrait published just last year, Harvey G. Cohen points out that “as he said in many interviews, religion for him was always tied to his parents and his childhood.” For all their prodigious stylistic diversity, some aspects of the Sacred Concerts, Cohen says, bring to mind “the way early memories often come back sharply to the aging.”
Both the immediacy and the honesty of making music become a wondrous metaphor for communication with the divine in the Sacred Concerts. As Ellington writes in Music Is My Mistress, the memoir he published the year before his death in 1974, everyone prays in their own language “and there is no language that God does not understand.” The languages that he weaves throughout these concerts, with breathtaking imagination, remind us just how “beyond category” the musically polyglot Ellington was (to borrow his trademark phrase for true excellence). They entail a kind of retrospective of styles that Ellington had absorbed through his long career: not only the lush harmonies and dancehall swing of his famous big-band sound, but unbuttoned jazz improvisation, the structure and grit of the blues, introspective piano solos, uplifting gospel music and spirituals, and jubilant choral layerings.
Small wonder, then, that Ellington objected to attempts to categorize his efforts as “jazz masses.” Music director Grant Gershon, who first led the Master Chorale in an evening of the Sacred Concerts in 2004, suggests that for Duke “these works had come to mean many things inside and outside the language of jazz.” And much as Ellington’s musical styles here blur boundaries, he reimagines familiar biblical stories so that they become fresh again and glow with a contemporary relevance. It’s hard to picture a scriptural passage coming more vividly to life than in David Danced, with its exhilarating blend of band, chorus, and tap dance (when the legendary Bunn Briggs came out to perform as tap dancer during the First Sacred Concert, Ellington unforgettably introduced him as “the most superleviathonic, rhythmaturgically syncopated tapsthamaticianisamist.”) Similarly, Ellington’s lyrics and “fire-and-brimstone sermonettes” (his tongue-in-cheek term) have no patience for walls that divide the sacred from the secular — or rather, they emphasize what the music celebrates: that the world around us itself is sacred. The spoken part of In the Beginning mixes a wryly humorous critique of American materialism with a hint of the smoky word-jazz of the Beat Poets, while It’s Freedom — the multipart centerpiece of the Second Concert — envisions the convergence of artistic, political, moral, and spiritual liberation. Sometimes cheeky word play is indulged; at others, it’s the clarity of the child’s point of view that captivates us.
Ellington famously referred to himself in these works as “God’s messenger.” Janna Tull Steed, author of Duke Ellington: A Spiritual Biography, remarks that the message “consisted of his own beliefs about God, which were rooted in Christian doctrine but idiosyncratically selected and interpreted.” Indeed, far from being dogmatic, Ellington’s message is emphatically universal both in its acknowledgment of human weakness (Father Forgive) and in its joyous paean to creation (Praise God and Dance).
The First Sacred Concert had been commissioned in honor of the completion of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. Its premiere there in 1965 earned widespread attention and soon led to performances in different churches, across many sects; starting with Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Ellington was also invited to bring the program to synagogues. Yet as this new development continued, naysayers increasingly voiced skepticism about the “appropriateness” of jazz idioms in places of worship. There was even unabashed cynicism concerning the urbane, worldly jazzman’s motivation for praising God in such a public way at this point in his career. Though Ellington didn’t intend to emulate European models in the Sacred Concerts, there’s a parallel in the resistance Bach encountered from Leipzig authorities when he modernized the traditional Passion setting and intensified its emotional impact through the power of his music.
“We still have a long way to go in shedding light on the profundity and strength of these compositions,” says Ellington authority James Newton, this evening’s co-conductor, whom Gershon credits with inspiring his fascination with the Sacred Concerts. Newton goes on to observe that critics who dismiss this music as some sort of contradiction tend to ignore its continuity with the rest of Ellington’s career: the fact that they offer “a summation of so many different styles” in which he was fluent.
In the Beginning, for example, unfolds as an extended miniature suite, a brilliant collage rooted in a haunting six-note motif that corresponds to the first six syllables of Genesis from the King James Bible. It shows Ellington at his most experimental, recalling the ambition of such long-form works as Black, Brown, and Beige and Harlem. Yet Ellington juxtaposes this with easily recognizable idioms: the hand-clapping gospel of Ain’t but the One or the slow trumpet-based blues of The Shepherd.
In fact, as if to underline the convergence of sacred and secular, the majority of material from the First Sacred Concert was recycled from earlier compositions — including Black, Brown, and Beige itself (the source of Come Sunday), and the revue My People. The latter, written in 1963 to celebrate the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, revolved around the role of African Americans in shaping the American experience. From the music he’d written for My People, Ellington borrowed three numbers — Will You Be There? and Ain’t but the One (both a cappella), as well as David Danced — but now gave them a new context. There are connections between pieces as well: Come Sunday’s soul-stirring melody reflects Ellington’s modern-day take on the spiritual; speeded up, it becomes the buoyant tune of David Danced.
This tremendous diversity mirrors Ellington’s philosophy of making music — the incomparable alchemy that is behind “the Duke Ellington sound.” Explains Newton: “He gave each member of the orchestra freedom to be themselves and then took all those diverse languages and put them together. This is about bringing all that individuality together and creating something larger than the sum of the individual parts.”
Yet alongside their continuity with his past work, Newton observes, the Sacred Concerts introduce a language “that is unlike the other work — especially in the a cappella pieces.” The complex harmonies of Father Forgive are like trap doors, each opening up to an entirely new vista. Newton believes that the losses of Ellington’s later years — including the death of his great friend and musical partner Billy Strayhorn — found expression in the later concerts. Ellington himself was suffering from the cancer that would kill him as he drove himself to complete the music for the Third Sacred Concert. Steed writes that the three concerts share elements in common yet become increasingly introspective so that the final one exudes an overall attitude of “prayerful contemplation of the love and beauty of God.”
For Ellington, the Sacred Concerts became part of an evolving process, a “form of worship” that resisted being fixed or fossilized. The music “speaks, whether through a singer, a piano, a solo saxophone, or a set of drums, of tremendously personal things,” wrote the late Alan Rich. “As such it is never removed from the purest meaning of prayer.”
— Thomas May writes frequently about the arts and is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
The Three Sacred Concerts
All told, the three Sacred Concerts, which spanned Ellington’s final decade, presented more than 40 different pieces — several of them linked into larger suites — that range from intimate solo reflections to rousing ensemble numbers. The selections on this evening’s program are taken from the three concerts of the original series as follows:
First Sacred Concert premiered on September 16, 1965 in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco)
In the Beginning God Grammy® 1966 for Best Original Jazz Composition
Will You Be There?
Ain’t but the One
Second Sacred Concert
(premiered on January 19, 1968 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York)
The Shepherd (Who Watches Over the Night Flock)
Something ‘Bout Believing
Praise God and Dance
Third Sacred Concert, subtitled “The Majesty of God” (premiered on October 24, 1973 at Westminster Abbey
The Majesty of God
The Lord’s Prayer