Duke Ellington, jazz legend, pianist and band leader, spent the last decade of his life creating and presenting “sacred concerts.” Described by one critic as “bringing the Cotton Club to church,” Ellington considered them “the most important thing I have ever done.”
Now conductor Vicki Burrichter and the Boulder Chorale are bringing the Ellington Sacred Concerts to Boulder. Joining Burrichter and the Chorale will be vocalist Joslyn Ford-Keel and tap dancer — a performer specified in the score — David Sharp.
Bringing the Sacred Concerts to performance is not simple. Ellington gave three performances that were recorded — the first in 1965 for the opening of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the second in 1968 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, and the third in 1973 at Westminster Abbey in London. These are known as the First, Second and Third Sacred Concerts.
Each performance had different personnel and different content, and each was closely tailored to the specific performers on that date. To make the music more accessible, Swedish musicians John Høybe and Peder Pedersen produced a score of music from all three of Ellington’s concerts, arranged for choir and jazz big band, with soloists.
The version Boulder Chorale will perform is an arrangement of that version, replacing the big band with a jazz sextet. It was created first by James Elsberry and then completed by Adam Waite, the minister of music at Denver’s Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church.
Most of the music is known through the context of the Sacred Concerts, but one movement in particular has achieved status as an Ellington classic: “Come Sunday,” which has become a staple of church choir performances throughout the country.
Burrichter lists several reasons to perform the Sacred Concerts. “First of all, I love Ellington,” she says. “I think he was the greatest genius of jazz, as a composer certainly. And I always look for jazz masterworks for chorus. There aren’t that many of them, so when I find something by a composer as elevated by Ellington. It needs to be shared in the community.”
After performing Dave Brubeck’s “Mass” two years ago, Burrichter hoped to repeat the success of those performances. “I was looking for a way to work with some of the best jazz musicians in Colorado again,” she says. “I wanted to have Joslyn Ford-Keel, who was a very big hit with audiences, come back, and this seemed like a perfect piece.”
Another reason is that she finds the texts relevant today. “This piece speaks to what’s going on right now,” she says. “There’s a set near the beginning that is about freedom — eight short movements that repeat the word freedom in different contexts. Of course Ellington is talking about it in terms to the African-American experience.”
To heighten the relevance in today’s world, Burrichter has imported one piece from the Second Sacred Concert that was not included in the Høybe/Pedersen version, “Father Forgive.” Burrichter explains that she chose that song for its “beautiful narration. The choir repeats over and over again in different harmonic progressions, ‘Father, Forgive,’ and the soloist, who will be Joselyn, says things like ‘The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,’ and ‘our indifference to the plight of the homeless and the refugee.’”
While the texts draw very clearly on Christian imagery, the pieces are not intended to be liturgical. “Ellington was a very spiritual man,” Burrichter says, “but he was much more about connecting all of humanity to the divine.” In his autobiography, she points out, he wrote “Every man prays in his own language, and there is no language that God does not understand” — a text that Ellington used in the Third Sacred Concert.
Another part of the Sacred Concerts’ appeal is that it is a serious piece without being solemn. For example, Burrichter points to the movement that calls for a tap dancer. “There is a really fun movement called ‘David Danced before the Lord,’” she says.
Sharp, the tap dancer Burrichter engaged for that movement, is a perfect fit for the role. Sometimes called “the tap-dancing preacher,” he is an ordained minister who has danced on Broadway. “I love that part of it,” Burrichter says. “The exquisite intricacy of the tap dancing is something I think audiences are going to be thrilled by.
“When you combine the greatest genius of American music with the sheer joy and beauty of the piece, seeing a tap dancer at a choral concert, and hearing these wonderful musicians improvise, it’s going to be a really thrilling event.”
On the Bill: Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts —presented by Boulder Chorale. Vicki Burrichter, director, with Joslyn Ford-Keel, vocalist, and David Sharp, tap dancer. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 19 and 4 p.m. Sunday, May 20, First United Methodist Church, 1421 Spruce St., Boulder. Tickets: app.arts-people.com/index.php?show=79271