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The sacred side of Ellington

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Duke Ellington
Bandleader and composer Duke Ellington considered his Sacred Concerts as the most important thing he ever did.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

As a composer who wrote mostly for his own big jazz band, Ellington would seem to have little music to offer a choral group. But VocalEssence artistic director Philip Brunelle says that's not the case.

"Though people don't often think about Duke Ellington and choral music, there is a lot of it there," Brunelle says.

Philip Brunelle
VocalEssence founder and artistic director Philip Brunelle.
Image courtesy of VocalEssence

Ellington's choral music comes from what he called his Sacred Concerts. Ellington wrote this music late in life, as he was thinking about his mortality and becoming more spiritual. 

Between 1965 and his death in 1974, Ellington expressed his religious beliefs in performances of his three Sacred Concerts at cathedrals and churches throughout the U.S. and Europe, including a 1968 appearance at the Hennepin Ave. United Methodist Church in Minneapolis. 

Ellington's Sacred Concerts were entertaining, jazz-based, religious musical revues featuring the full Ellington band along with dancers, choirs, and gospel singers.

For the past 18 years, VocalEssence has honored the artistic contributions of African-Americans with annual "Witness" concerts. This year, the 120-voice ensemble will be joined by a big band to explore the music and impact of Duke Ellington.

Dennis Spears and Sanford Moore
Vocalist Dennis Spears and pianist/arranger Sanford Moore are the guest artists for the VocalEssence "Witness" concert, feauturing the music of Duke Ellington. They say that some of Ellington's Sacred Concert music would sound right at home in the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church where they're both members.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

Bandleader, composer and Ellington scholar David Berger has transcribed some 500 classic Ellington recordings, and did the arrangements of the music from the Sacred Concerts VocalEssence will perform. 

Even though Ellington talked more about God and religion during his last 10 years, Berger says Ellington addressed spiritual issues in his music throughout his career.

"He was a very spiritual man, but his music is an expression of all the sides of Duke Ellington," Berger says. "He didn't compartmentalize. That's the beauty of his music. In his sacred music there is the profane. And in his profane music there is the sacred." 

Composer, arranger and pianist Sanford Moore is the director of the vocal jazz ensemble Moore by Four, and minister of music at the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis. He's also the pianist for Sunday's VocalEssence concert of Duke Ellington's music at the Ordway Center. 

VocalEssence
Philip Brunelle and the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers.
Photo courtesy of VocalEssence

Moore says there's a lot of angst in the songs from Ellington's sacred concerts.

"His sacred music can be very heart-wrenching," Moore says. "I hear a lot of pain. Most of the songs, especially the slower ones, are very ethereal. But songs like "David Danced" and "99%" are hand-clappin', foot-stompin' gospel pieces."

Duke Ellington's three Sacred Concerts received mixed reviews when they were first performed and recorded. Critics called them everything from "embarrassing" to "remarkable." 

In 1973, a year before his death, Ellington wrote that his Second Sacred Concert was the most important thing he ever did. But David Berger says he doesn't consider the sacred concerts Ellington at his best.

"If you could talk to Ellington now, I don't think he'd say the sacred music was his greatest music," Berger says. "However, he felt that it was a great thing that he was doing in creating sacred music. He felt his involvement in that was a great way for him to express his spirituality."

David Berger says Duke Ellington's influence in jazz has only grown in the three decades since his death. 

Along with his sacred music, Sunday's VocalEssence Witness concert, called "The Duke Ellington Effect," will include music by contemporary African-American composers who were inspired by the musical legend. 

VocalEssence artistic director Philip Brunelle says he hopes people at the performance will come to realize that the greatness of Duke Ellington is even greater than they thought.