Despite his popular success with tunes like "Take The A Train", "Sophisticated Lady" and countless others, Duke Ellington was very proud of the work he did late in life, his so-called sacred concerts.
The three concerts featured everything from extended suites to simple gospel tunes like this one recorded in 1963.
Ellington performed with choirs, dancers and his famous band in churches around the country and the world. They even played at Sacramento’s Westminster Presbyterian Church. It was a busy time for Ellington in his final decade.
“And in fact he wrote the third sacred concert in his last year of life.”
Ralph Hughes is the primary organizer of this weekend’s tribute.
“And he considered this to be one of the most important parts of his compositional output.”
Hughes will direct his 48-member choir, the Sacramento Master Singers, through highlights from the sacred concerts. They’ll be joined by jazz bands from American River College, the Harley White, Jr. Orchestra, the Capital Jazz Project and actors and dancers from Celebration Arts. A hundred and five performers in all, says Hughes.
Earlier this week everyone packed into the ARC band room to rehearse. Between songs, Hughes described how this music provides a special challenge for his singers.
“The choir is known in this area for their work in the classical realm and probably neo-classical realm. So for some of them they had never sung in a style where they had to swing a rhythm. And we’ve risen to the occasion I think quite nicely.”
Rhythm wasn’t the only challenge for the choir. Sometimes they had trouble with Ellington’s choice of language.
“Like the word reet. Reet complete, you know things like that and you go I don’t know what that means, is that a typo? Then you find out no, that was sort of common slang for dressing to the nines sort of thing. He had to be a poet as well, you know writing the lyrics and so there’s just some really really clever lyrics that have made us smile.”
Hughes believes the audience wil be smiling when they see special guest Ardie Bryant take the stage. The veteran tap dancer actually worked with Ellington, among other jazz greats. And when he performs on the song “David Danced,” it’ll mark a sort of homecoming.
“He is turning 81 on the night of the first concert. He lives in L.A. He graduated from Sacramento High and agreed to come up to Sacramento, to his roots. So he’s really looking forward to kicking that dance off.
As for Ralph Hughes, he’s hoping the concerts this weekend will cultivate new fans for one of America’s most compelling and prolific composers.
“I’m going to guess that there will be a lot of people like myself who just go out and buy some Ellington, whether it be this sacred music or other, and just get turned on to Ellington’s music.”
“Come Sunday: the Sacred Music of Duke Ellington,” featuring the Sacramento Master Singers, Capital Jazz Project, the Harley White, Jr. Orchestra, Julia Dollison, Jacosa Limatau, and jazz bands from American River College will be performed Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Crest Theatre.