The choir of Trinity Church, Copley Square, in collaboration with Berklee College of Music, presents Duke Ellington’s “A Sacred Concert,” on Sunday, April 30, at 5 pm, free and open to all. Featuring the Greg Hopkins Jazz Orchestra, soprano Dominique Eade, alto Renese King, baritone Daon Drisdom, and tap dancer Thomas DeFranz, led by Colin Lynch, Director of Music. Given the extensive resources it requires, the piece has remained a concert rarity since Ellington’s death in 1974.
Fusing jazz and classical styles, spirituals, gospel, blues, and dance, this bold and sprawling work serves as a culmination to Ellington’s long and incomparable career. Commissioned in 1965 as part of the consecration of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral during the turbulence of the Civil Rights movement and the war in Việt Nam, these sacred works resounded many times over the last decade of his life. For subsequent performances at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in 1968 and at Westminster Abbey in 1973, Ellington reworked the score to accommodate other venues and performers, as well as his evolving artistic and spiritual vision.
This music is the most important thing I’ve ever done or am ever likely to do. This is personal, not career. Now I can say out loud to all the world what I’ve been saying to myself for years on my knees.
Ellington was hesitant in accepting the invitation from Grace Cathedral (and its controversial Bishop James Pike), concerned that his worldly life as a bandleader made him too impious and that his big band idiom, rooted in a Baptist childhood, better suited Harlem’s Cotton Club than sacred spaces or liturgies. But eventually he came to believe:
Every man prays in his own language, and there is no language God doesn’t understand . . . . no matter how highly skilled a drummer or saxophonist might be, if this is the thing he does best, and he offers it sincerely from the heart in—or as accompaniment to—his worship, he will not be unacceptable because of lack of skill or of the instrument upon which he makes his demonstration, be it pipe or tom-tom.
For the rest of his life Ellington devoted himself indefatigably and sincerely to doing his best. He revisited and borrowed from his past compositions, refashioning songs and orchestrations, reaching out to former collaborators like Mahalia Jackson, the devout gospel singer, who reportedly said, “Baby, don’t you know the Devil stole the beat from the Lord?” And above all Ellington sought help from his longtime arranger, Billy Strayhorn, “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head.”
For his Sacred Concerts, Ellington revisited and borrowed from past compositions, refashioning tunes and orchestrations. The first part opens with an air of mystery, drums jamming with the piano (originally Ellington at the keyboard), before the baritone soloist intones, “In the Beginning, God,” and elaborates “no earth, no heaven, no nothing . . . no night, no day, no bills to pay, no glory, no gloom, no poverty, no credit cards, no conference calls, no T.V. commercials, no headaches, no aspirin,“ cleverly intertwining the sacred and profane. Instrumental solos give way to the choir chanting the books of the Bible —an outpouring of wit, faith, and love in rhythmic harmony. Every part of the work offers moments of wonder and surprise, as familiar words are reborn in jazz licks full of joy. The literal movement “David Danced,” where a tap dancer reenacts 2 Samuel, David “dancing before the Lord with all his might,” is particularly memorable. The buoyant rhythms of tap solo and percussion and chorus become an intricate call and response. Ellington ends, just as the ancient psalmists did, with no. 150: “…‘the organ, the cymbal, the loud high-sounding cymbal, let everything that has breath praise God, praise the Lord, praise God.’ and dance, dance, dance!”