Friday, December 24, 2010

Sacred Music

"Every man prays in his own language." Duke Ellington

Today is Christmas Eve of course, and even those atheists among us have something to celebrate: the end of a long season of schmaltzy, repetitive "holiday" music. As a gift for enduring the torture of Christmas time radio, on December 26th Earshot Jazz presents their annual concert of Ellington's Sacred Music, which is neither schmaltzy nor repetitive.

Ellington's suite of sacred music was the culmination of the last phase of his life's work, inspired by the civil rights movement. In his program notes for the first concert in 1965 he wrote, "How can anyone expect to be understood unless he presents his thoughts with complete honesty? ... Every time God's children have thrown away fear in pursuit of honesty - trying to communicate themselves, understood or not, miracles have happened."

Ellington performed his evolving suite only four times - The first sacred concert took place in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1965, the second in 1968 at the Cathedral of St. John in New York and St. Mark's Cathedral in New Canaan, CT. The final concert was premiered on October 24, 1973 at London's Westminster Abbey. Exactly seven months later Duke Ellington passed away. In his lifetime, Ellington stated that this was the most important music he'd ever written, but because of the scale of the music and the sheer number of artists needed to perform it, Ellington's sacred concerts have rarely been performed since his death.

It's a great treat to see the work performed live, and Town Hall Seattle is a wonderfully intimate setting. This year the concert features the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, co-directed by Michael Brockman and Clarence Acox, with guest vocalists Everett Greene, Nichol Eskridge, and the NW Chamber Chorus, and a special appearance from tap-dancer Alex Dugdale. Tickets run from $15 to $34 and are available here.

Here is some excellent footage of the premier of Ellington's Sacred Music at Grace Cathedral, with a star-studded orchestra that includes such legends as Cootie Williams, Cat Anderson, and Paul Gonsalves.

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