The Duke’s Sacred Roots

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Jazz legend Duke Ellington (1899-1974) called his sacred concerts “the most important thing I have ever done.” What he did: brought jazz into church. This year, Earshot Jazz is celebrating its 30th anniversary of presenting Ellington’s music. The concert will be held on December 28 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral.

Duke Ellington is in the pantheon of jazz greats. He was a composer, a pianist, and the leader of a jazz orchestra (still in operation) from 1923 until his death, a career spanning more than 50 years. He wrote over 1,000 compositions, including “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Bundle of Blues,” and “Mood Indigo.”

Though Ellington is known for his ubane and cosmopolitan ways, he had deep roots in the Christian faith. He was brought up by his parents in the Baptist and A.M.E. Zion churches. He knew a plethora of hymns and Bible stories by heart, and read the Bible every day. Duke prayed regularly and attended church as often as he could with his demanding touring schedule. He took gospel tunes and wove them into his own songs.

It was in 1962 that Reverend John S. Yaryan asked Ellington if he would perform at the new Grace Cathedral in San Francisco when it opened in 1965. Ellington agreed, and the concert premiered on September 16, 1965. Personnel included (amongst others) Ellington on the piano, Cootie Williams on trumpet, Johnny Hodges on saxophone, Louie Bellson on drums, and Bunny Briggs performing an accompanying tap dance. One song in the concert, “In the Beginning God,” was awarded a Grammy Award in 1967.

Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert premiered at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City on January 19, 1968. The concert ended with “Praise God and Dance,” which comes from Psalm 150.

By the time of his Third Sacred Concert, Duke Ellington knew his life was near ending. He would pass away on May 24, 1974, of complications from lung cancer and pneumonia. The third concert was performed at London’s majestic Westminster Abbey on October 24, 1973. Here’s his “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Earshot Jazz’s concert this year features the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra; guest vocalists Stephen Newby and Nichol Veneé Eskridge; the NW Chamber Chorus; members of the New Revelations Choir (from Seattle’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church), and special guest tap dancer Alex Dugdale.

For more information and tickets, go here.

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