Strathmore Discovers Duke Ellington

Special to Informer | 2/16/2012, 11:36 a.m.

Strathmore, with its popular venues The Music Center at Strathmore and The Mansion at Strathmore, has been busy during Black History Month focusing its Great American Composers series on Edward Kennedy Ellington, better known as "Duke."

A month-long series of concerts, lectures and panels has been examining the prolific works of the jazz composer, musician and native Washingtonian. Enlisting the contributions of experts, historians, dancers and musicians, the works of Duke Ellington have been performed, discussed and celebrated starting Feb. 3 and ending Feb. 20. Featured thus far have been a number of themed events centering on the origins, music and inspiration that led Duke Ellington to create more than 1,500 works encompassing jazz, blues and sacred music.

"Discover Ellington" kicked off with Strathmore's Artist-in-Residence mentor Chris Vadala and his Trio, who inaugurated the celebration with a performance of Ellington's instrumental standards. On Monday, Feb. 13, jazz musician, historian and educator Rusty Hassan demonstrated how the genres of blues, spirituals and work songs influenced Ellington, along with a viewing of the film "Symphony in Black" at 7:30 p.m. at the Mansion at Strathmore.

Thursday, Feb. 16, will focus on Ellington's compositions, Mostly Ellington, performed by pianist Robert Glasper at the Mansion at 7:30 p.m.

On Friday, Feb. 17, at 7 p.m., the Levine School of Music presents "Channeling Duke Ellington" at the Music Center, where the famous improvisations of the Duke Ellington/Jimmy Blanton duo will be transcribed note for note. On the same evening, a full concert by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, conducted by David Baker featuring vocalist Julia Nixon and the tap dancing Manzari Brothers will appear at 8 p.m.

"Discover Ellington: Panel Discussion" will highlight discussion of Duke Ellington from the perspectives of music historian John Edward Hasse, curator of American Music at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History; director of Music at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Davey Yarborough and composer/author David Schiff, whose book "Ellington Century" will be released this month. The discussion will be moderated by Strathmore CEO Eliot Pfanstiehl at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 18, at the Mansion at Strathmore. The day-long tribute continues with "Big Band Ellington: Duke Goes Latin" at 8 p.m.

On Sunday, Feb. 19, the culmination of the festival undertakes one of Duke Ellington's beloved genres in "Ellington: A Sacred Concert" at 4 p.m. at the Music Center at Strathmore. Ellington focused on the composition of three sacred music concerts during his last years prior to this death in May 1974. Those concerts were recorded live in New York City and recorded for posterity, featuring hand-picked musicians, and those recordings remain among the finest works of Ellington's life work. In fact, he called them "the most important thing I have ever done." Seminal works from those legendary concerts include "Come Sunday" and "Something 'bout Believing."

The series of events ends on Monday, Feb. 20, with a family festival, "Discover Strathmore: Duke Ellington," exploring all things Ellington from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. This free, all-day festival will have live multi-media performances, participatory concerts and workshops with the Hot 8 Brass Band and JazzReach, demonstrating how pervasive Ellington's influences have been in multiple musical styles, and making the legacy of Duke Ellington accessible to all ages.

"Duke Ellington was an elegant showman of exceptional talent who introduced Americans to their music," said Shelley Brown, Strathmore's Artistic Director and creator of "Discover Ellington." His ear for traditional music structure and capability with sophisticated arrangement and harmonies produced some of the most charming and inspiring music ever."