A Quest For Freedom
By Peter Rutenberg
“It was the most important thing I ever did.” — Duke Ellington
The year was 1965. The place was San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. The phenomenon was the first in the legendary series of worldwide performances known as the Sacred Concerts.
Edward Kennedy Ellington once said, “Put it this way. Jazz is a good barometer of freedom. In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.” Jazz evolved from three other distinctly American genres: the unaccompanied work and prayer songs of slavery known as “spirituals;” the improvisatory hymns of Black Baptist churches and the “blues” — which were virtually the same, musically speaking; and the animated syncopations of ‘ragtime’.
Noted author Geoffrey C. Ward writes in his epic Jazz: A History of America’s Music (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000): “Jazz music would eventually embody both kinds of invocation, the sacred and the secular, and New Orleans musicians would be the first to deepen the infinitely expressive sound of the blues by bringing it to their horns, the first to echo the collective ‘moan’ of the congregation, the first to reproduce the call-and-response patterns of the religious exhorter and his transported flock.” Ward also cites Sidney Bechet, the “New Orleans clarinet master” who recalled: “...and both of them, the spirituals and the blues, they was a prayer: one was praying... ‘Oh God, let me go...’ and the other was saying, ‘Oh Mister, let me be.’ ”
A trade center for the entire Mississippi Valley, New Orleans was on the cutting edge of cultural developments, both receiving and disseminating the latest from upriver and abroad. Music was at the heart of this culture as, by 1850, the city could boast not only a “white” but a “creole” orchestra and three opera houses with tiered seating available to whites, creoles and slaves. To the amazement of visitors, slaves could be heard singing popular arias while locals hardly noticed. In general, there was a somewhat greater tolerance for racial differences and “mixing” in society than in other parts of the segregated South. One year and twelve days after the Civil War’s opening salvo on Fort Sumter, in April 1861 a Union fleet steamed up the river and forced the city’s surrender. Federal occupation seemed to signal a new birth of freedom for the thousands of runaway slaves who soon crowded into the city.” (Ward).
New Orleans became the first American city to experience racial integration as a result of the Civil War — from the marketplace to the opera house, and from the baseball diamond to the classroom. Military bands lost their martial purpose and soon their instruments were at the disposal of recreational and cultural pursuits. After the war, segregation would return, and by the 1890s, Jim Crow laws would once again be strictly enforced. No matter, for the seeds of jazz’s inevitable rise had been sown deep in the muddy soil of that brief era of freedom.
Duke Ellington, as he came to be known in school, was called ‘blessed’ by his mother Daisy, a devoutly-religious woman who considered him the long-awaited answer to her prayers. She smothered him with love and encouragement, kept him away from negative influences, assiduously removed any and all barriers to his progress, and remained his inspiration for the rest of his life. Ward writes: “He was born in northwest Washington on April 22, 1899, and spent his earliest years in a big comfortable house on Ward’s Place, just a few blocks from the White House. The nation’s capital then had the largest black population of any city in the United States — nearly one hundred thousand souls…
Ellington’s father James Edward was a butler to a prominent Washington physician, sometimes served as a caterer at the White House, and eventually became a blueprint maker at the Navy Yard. But his son remembered that ‘he raised his family as if he were a millionaire.’ ”
An accomplished pianist herself, Daisy saw to it that Edward learned the instrument as soon as he could reach the keyboard and faithfully monitored his daily practice. At 15, while the two were on vacation in Asbury Park, a chance encounter with the Philadelphia ragtime pianist Harvey Brooks “changed his life,” as the composer later asserted. Ellington recognized that Brooks’ ‘voice’ was unique, a mark of his own identity, and conceived then and there that he would find a way to achieve that same uniqueness for himself. The breakthrough came in 1923 when Ellington caught clarinetist Sidney Bechet’s show at Washington’s Howard Theater. “All wood... all soul, all from the inside,” he said. “It was my first encounter with the New Orleans idiom. I had never heard anything like it.” As Ward notes: “When the time came, Ellington would make that sound and conception central elements in his own extraordinary music.” The “sound” became instantly recognizable and his persona the hallmark of “class” in jazz entertainment. His boundless, driving creativity would propel him to worldwide fame and an enduring place of honor in the American cultural pantheon.
Back in 1965, responding to the fervent spirituality of a childhood spent in two churches (the Baptist Church of his mother’s family and the African Methodist of his father’s), a fascination with the Bible, and a pressing need to thank his maker for the fulfilling richness of his life, Ellington wrote the first of three Sacred Concerts synthesizing all the elements and influences of his beloved New Orleans jazz, the secular together with the sacred. The occasion of his 70th birthday in 1969 was marked at the White House with a ceremony for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Ellington would say in accepting the award, “The word ‘freedom’ is one that we are using at the moment in our Sacred Concert. And of course we speak of freedom of expression, we speak of freedom as something sweet and fat...but in the end... what we actually say is... freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from self-pity; freedom from fear....”
The music of the Sacred Concerts centers on the quest for freedom. Ellington’s innate talents, childhood values, and drive to celebrate the richness of human life helped form a uniquely individual voice that was itself the quintessence of jazz, and thus, a lifelong embodiment of that quest.