Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts
Grinnell Jazz Ensemble
Damani Phillips, director
Grinnell Oratorio Society and The Grinnell Singers
John Rommereim, director
Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts
by John Rommereim
Duke Ellington said straight out that his Sacred Concerts were the "most important thing [he had] ever done." When one of America's greatest composers makes such a claim, people take notice, and rightly so -- this is music that deserves our attention. To encounter the music is to encounter Ellington the man; the music, like the composer himself, speaks with an undeniable directness.
Watching videos of Ellington interacting with the public, you can't help but notice his independent streak, his refusal to be pinned down, to give any quarter, to play into the assumptions of his interviewer. A Norwegian journalist, for instance, asks a perfectly straightforward question, “What do you think of the current jazz scene?” and Ellington slips away from the question and poses his own in his sonorous voice "-- Jazz . . . what is jazz? Jazz is just freedom of expression. . . . " Even the seemingly innocuous inquiry, “How is your tour going?” is answered with another diversion: "How's the tour going? The Tour? We don't do tours; this is what we do; we do this fifty-two weeks a year." In conceiving and composing the Sacred Concerts, Ellington showed a similar enigmatic, independent spirit; the work can't be entirely pinned down any more than Ellington himself could be. Ellington famously asserted that "every man prays in his own language and there is no language that God does not understand.” As the jazz critic Gary Giddins suggests (Grinnell class of '70), Ellington, was not trying, in these works, to take on a musical idiom that was foreign to him; rather, he was attempting to “bring his own music intact to the church.” (Visions of Jazz, p. 491) As Giddins says, “He did not abandon the Cotton Club; he brought the Cotton Club revue to the pulpit.”
The first Sacred Concert was commissioned to celebrate the completion of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1965 – an awe-inspiring structure formed out of enormous, upward-sweeping, parabolic curves, with extremely reverberant acoustics. The Second Concert premiered in the similarly resonant space of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York in 1968, and the Third was introduced at Westminster Abbey in 1973, a few short months before Ellington's death. Because each of the three Sacred Concerts functions essentially as a collection of set pieces rather than as three distinct, coherent works, performances have often combined selections from the three Concerts as we have done for the Grinnell and Des Moines performances.
In all three Sacred Concerts, Ellingon’s creativity is as much in evidence in the words as in the music. The words are not based on a particular pattern from liturgical music. There are no discernible parallels, for instance, to movements of the mass. In a sense, by creating his own texts, Ellington was devising his own form of religious expression. It may be a stretch to claim that he has created a new religion, but he certainly has offered up his individual, idiosyncratic take on Christianity, and in sections of the work something akin to a personal philosophy of life emerges. In “It’s Freedom,” Ellington offers his thoughts on the concept of freedom:
I often think of freedom as it was enjoyed by Billy Strayhorn, my writing and arranging companion. Billy Strayhorn lived by four major moral freedoms. Freedom from hate unconditionally, freedom from self pity, freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might benefit someone else more than it would him, and freedom from the kind of pride that could make a man feel that he was better than his brothers.
Elsewhere in the "Freedom" movement, Ellington adds a cautionary -- and sardonic -- note about the word, turning the piece from an unabashed hymn-to-freedom to something more nuanced and multi-sided: “Freedom is a word that is spoken and sung loudly and softly all around the world, and in many languages. The word freedom is used for many purposes. It is sometimes even used in the interest of freedom.” The score calls for the recitation of the word "freedom" in sixteen different languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Latin, Yiddish, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Russian, Georgian, Greek, Japanese, Chinese, Swahili, and Hebrew). We have added Arabic to the list for the Iowa performances.
In every movement of the work, Ellington's wit and irrepressible playfulness are in evidence in the text. In "Almighty God," the angels seem to be playing the role of fashion consultants for the saints: "Almighty God has those Angels away up there above, up there a-weaving sparkling fabrics just for you and me to love." Later we hear the memorable, lighthearted lines: "Wash your face and hands and heart and soul, 'cause you wash so well; God will keep you safely where there's no sulfur smell."
Above all, Ellington's aim is to create music that is honest through and through. As he wrote in his program notes for the first concert:
How can anyone expect to be understood unless he presents his thoughts with complete honesty? This situation is unfair because it asks too much of the world. In effect, we say, ' I don't dare show you what I am because I don't trust you for a minute but please love me anyway because I so need you to. And, of course, if you don't love me anyway, you're a dirty dog, just as I suspected, so I was right in the first place.' Yet, every time God's children have thrown away fear in pursuit of honesty--trying to communicate themselves, understood or not, miracles have happened.
To view Duke Ellington in 1965 with Bunny Briggs performing "David Danced Before the Lord,", watch this You Tube video.
To listen to an NPR article on the Sacred Concerts.