Roy Hurst, NPR
Orchestra, choir and featured singers at the performance of selections from Duke Ellington's "sacred" concerts in Los Angeles. View larger photo
Lena Horne and Duke Ellington perform his first Concert of Sacred Music at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, Dec. 27, 1965. View larger photo
In the last years of Duke Ellington's life, the jazz maestro explored the spiritual side of his extraordinary musical gifts. Between 1965 and 1973, Ellington wrote three massive works that combined elements of jazz, classical music, choral music, spirituals, gospel, blues and dance.
He called them his "sacred concerts," and they were performed in churches and cathedrals around the world. He said it was the most important music he'd ever written.
Because of the scale of the music and the sheer number of artists needed to execute each work, Ellington's sacred concerts have rarely been performed in the 30 years since his death in 1974.
But recently, a jazz orchestra, a gospel choir, a master chorale and a group of soloists and dancers were among more than 150 artists to perform passages from each of Ellington's "sacred" concerts.
This time, the concert was performed at a different type of cathedral: the new Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, a venue praised for its daring architectural design. The Disney Concert Hall is also one of the few performance halls large enough to handle such a production.
Grant Gershon, music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, first forwarded the idea of re-creating Ellington's vision. James Newton, music director of the Luckman Jazz Orchestra, provided the jazz element of this multi-faceted production.
Guest soloist Bobette Jamison-Harrison had the daunting task of singing the "23rd Psalm" and "Come Sunday" — songs made famous by gospel legend Mahaila Jackson. And another featured performer, 75-year-old jazz tap percussionist Ardie Bryant, danced for Ellington 50 years ago.