The legendary Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington played his first gig nearly a century ago at U Street’s True Reformer hall, across the street from where Ben’s Chili Bowl now sits.
“He played there, then came home and showed his mother the 25 cents” he had earned, says John Edward Hasse, curator of American music at the National Museum of American History, who will participate in a discussion on the composer Saturday. “I like to think of him as D.C.’s greatest son, in a city where most people who achieve greatness are not born here, but come here,” he says of Ellington, who was born in Washington in 1899.
From that 25-cent performance, Ellington eventually became one of America’s greatest composers, bandleaders and orchestrators. And now he’s the focus of the “Discover Ellington” festival at the Music Center at Strathmore. All month long, Strathmore has been presenting lectures and concerts exploring what has made Ellington so important to American music and still so compelling to contemporary audiences. The series culminates with a selection of special performances this weekend.
“I didn’t want to just do historical renderings of his concerts, but really look at where his music lives with musicians today,” says Shelley Brown, vice president for programming and artistic director at Strathmore, who coordinated the festival. One way she did that was through “Big Band Ellington: Duke Goes Latin,” a program featuring the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra on Saturday. “I wanted to showcase the big band music, but I wanted to do it in a way that’s more contemporary. Latin jazz is this great crossover music that everybody loves. It’s party music — and that’s what [Ellington] did.”
This kind of adaptation is a fitting way to celebrate Ellington’s oeuvre. He had a unique way of notating his works — that is, how he wrote the music down for the members of his band. “He found ways to figure out what each [musician] did best and wrote pieces to feature them, to bring out their best and suppress their weakness,” says Hasse. “It’s very unusual for a composer to know exactly whom he or she is writing for, but in Ellington’s case, almost without exception, every piece he composed was written for people he knew. He’d write it in the afternoon and play it that night.”
Ellington was also the rare performer of his era who was loved by both black and white audiences. He’d spend one night playing in the jazz halls on U Street, and the next day “he was playing for foxhunts out in Virginia,” says Hasse. The range of the music he composed helped him reach a broader audience. “Of course he wrote three-minute instrumentals; he wrote songs; he wrote these long concert pieces; he wrote sacred works; he wrote film scores, scores for ballet; he wrote for Broadway,” Hasse says. “He wrote for a wide variety of media and did it all in his immutable way.”
(Tap) Dance Revolution: Duke Ellington ran into some controversy before the Washington premiere of his 1965 piece, “David Danced Before the Lord With All His Might.” The religiously themed work — the title comes from the Old Testament — had elements that concerned local pastors. “Instead of a drummer creating rhythm, dancers create the rhythm with their feet,” says John Edward Hasse, curator of American music for the National Museum of American History. Because of the dancing and the fact that Ellington was fusing jazz with worship, “it raised a bunch of eyebrows, and the Baptist Ministers Association of Washington refused to endorse it.” You can see this scandalous piece (with local dancers the Manzari Brothers, above, sharing the shocking tap role) as part of “Ellington: A Sacred Concert,” on Sunday at 4 p.m.
Mostly Ellington: Robert Glasper, piano. Thu., 7:30 p.m., $30.
Channeling Duke Ellington: Karine Chapdelaine, bass; Bob Sykes, piano. Fri., 7 p.m., $20.
Brian Stokes Mitchell Sings the Ellington American Songbook: Fri., 8 p.m., $39-$79. (Click here for our interview with Mitchell.)
Ellington Panel Discussion: panelists John Hasse, Davey Yarborough and David Schiff, moderated by Eliot Pfanstiehl. Sat., 5 p.m., free.
Big Band Ellington: Duke Goes Latin: Sat., 8 p.m., $29-$69.
Ellington: A Sacred Concert: Sun., 4 p.m., $30-$59.Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; through Mon., see website for a full schedule of events; 301-581-5100. (Grosvenor-Strathmore)