Ellington’s Sacred Concert at CCC
By Troy Dostert
Christ Church Cranbrook is building on its growing reputation for finding ways in which jazz music can enhance the church’s mission. On Saturday, March 10, CCC is partnering with the Carr Center and the Erb Family Foundation’s support of the Cranbrook Project in Music, Arts and Education, to offer a rare performance of the music from jazz legend Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts. The Christ Church Choir, in tandem with Michigan State University Jazz Director (and frequent CCC presence), Rodney Whitaker, will perform.
Many jazz musicians develop their first musical instincts in church. But for much of jazz’s history, the earthy, occasionally licentious environments in which jazz was performed – from the juke joints and dancehalls of the 1920s and 30s to the nightclubs of the 1940s and 50s – gave many listeners and performers the impression that jazz and sacred music should remain separate.
Ellington did not share this view. Indeed, he was always unequivocal in emphasizing that his three sacred concerts, composed and performed toward the end of his life in the 1960s and 1970s, were his “most important” work. After decades of writing some of jazz’s most enduring pieces – classics like “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Mood Indigo,” and “In a Sentimental Mood” – Ellington used his sacred concerts to make a summative statement: A way to bear witness that God had always been present in his music.
The music in these concerts wasn’t modified to give it a somehow more “religious” veneer. As jazz critic, Gary Giddins, notes in his monumental study Visions of Jazz, one of Ellington’s long-standing convictions was that “Every man prays in his own language and there is no language that God does not understand.” Consequently, says Giddins, rather than try to adopt a contrived musical idiom that wouldn’t be authentically his, Ellington brought “his own music intact to the church.” But pieces like “Come Sunday,” a central work in his earlier suite Black, Brown, and Beige – that also appears in his first sacred concert, make clear that the church and its influence were truly never far from Ellington’s grasp. The sacred concerts simply gave him a fuller opportunity to articulate his unique spiritual vision.
The Christ Church performance on March 10 involves a substantial array of musicians. The Christ Church Choir, under Christopher Wells’s direction, will be featured prominently, as well as The Gathering Orchestra, a 20-member orchestra led by Whitaker. Additional special artists will be Isis Damil, vocalist; Katrina Van Maanen, soprano; Brandon C.S. Hood, baritone; Natasha T. Miller, performance poet; and Bruce Bandley, tap dancer. The musical selections will be drawn from the first and second of the three sacred concerts, originally performed by the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1965 and 1968, respectively.
Christ Church Cranbrook is thrilled to be able to host what promises to be an extraordinary musical event: One that proves that jazz can energize both body and soul. The performance begins at 7:30 PM. Call the Church at 248-644-5210 for information about purchasing tickets.