In my youth during the jazz age, I had the opportunity to swing with such orchestras as Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, and Benny Goodman; but a band which I found surpassed all of these was that of Duke Ellington. Indeed, I praised Ellington’s work so intently that my Baltimore high schol yearbook notes the nickname my friends foisted on me, “The Duke.” It was my good fortune to experience Ellington when he was at the zenith of his career, from 1939 to 1941. This orchestra, then consisting of instrumentalists with vigorously unique styles, created an endless festival of supreme jazz compositions: Caravan, Cotton Tail, Ko-Ko, Concerto for Cootie, and Billy Strayhorn’s Take the A Train, which became the band’s signature. Never before had I seen so delightfully dignified a band leader as Ellington or such masterful soloists as Johnny Hodges on tenor saxaphone, Harry Carney on baritone sax, Rex Stuart on the growling trumpet, and Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton on trombone.
In later years of this orchestra, there were several special events designated sacred concerts. These gave formal recognition to Ellington’s profoundly religious inclinations. Do not be misled, however. Duke’s most sacred music was that which the orchestra regularly played in dance halls, movie theaters, jazz festivals, night clubs,and recording studios, plus the small informal groups which happily were often recorded, so future generations will have ample music for meditation.
When the classical music composer and conductor, Gunther Schuller, wrote The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945, he devoted 112 pages to Duke Ellington, almost three times more pages than are devoted to any other musician. His bold conclusion is that, “One must turn to the great classical masters of the past like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven…to find such persistent artistic unfolding.”
Nevertheless, once Duke’s life ended there came a brilliant renaissance of Ellingtonia, thanks largely to Wynton Marsalis. This classical and jazz musician is now the artistic director of Jazz at the Lincoln Center in New York. The 16 piece Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is touring cities across North America presenting the Ellington heritage and innovative jazz spirit in dramatically new form. If you want powerful music, you may want to ponder the strangely moving beauty of the durable Duke in modes both ancient and advancing.
Praise God with the Psaltery and harp;
Praise God with the sound of the timbrel
And Dance, Dance, Dance.Praise God with the sound of the stringed instruments:
The organ, the cymbal, the loud, high-sounding cymbal.
Let everything that has breath Praise God
And Dance, Dance, Dance Dance, Dance, Dance.
-from the Second Sacred Concert; with allusions to Psalm 150