Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington
Orchestrated by Luther Henderson and Maurice Peress
Kennesaw State University Jazz Ensemble 1
Sam Skelton, Director
Kennesaw State University Symphony Orchestra
Nathaniel F. Parker, Music Director and Conductor
As early as 1930, Duke Ellington had designs on transcending the term “jazz.” “I am not playing jazz,” he said, “I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people.” Regardless of the label one gives his work, it is apparent that Ellington was and remains a composer who redefined American music and stands as a giant in any serious discussion of the twentieth century. His idiosyncratic use of tone colors and the language of the blues is unrivaled, and nowhere is that on display as well as in his 1950 work Harlem. In their performance of the work for orchestra and jazz ensemble, orchestrated by Luther Henderson and Maurice Peress (the latter made his own recording with the American Composers Orchestra), the Kennesaw State University Jazz Ensemble 1 (Sam Skelton, director) and KSU Symphony Orchestra (Nathaniel F. Parker, Music Director and Conductor) do a fine job navigating the many challenges facing any group willing to tackle this huge and at times unwieldy concerto grosso.
The piece begins with a blues-drenched melodic motivic statement of “Harlem” from a plunger-muted trumpet in the jazz band. The orchestra responds in kind with sweeping Hollywood-like chords, kicking off a sort of programmatic trip that Ellington described as a Sunday stroll through Harlem. Peress elaborated in his liner notes from the 1989 American Composers Orchestra recording:
The piece of music goes like this (1) Pronouncing the word “Harlem,” itemizing its many facets---from downtown to uptown, true and false; (2) 110th Street, heading north through the Spanish neighborhood; (3) Intersection further uptown--cats shucking and stiffing; (4) Upbeat parade; (5) Jazz spoken in a thousand languages (6) Floor show; (7) Girls out of step, but kicking like crazy; (8) Fanfare for Sunday; (9) On the way to church; (10) Church---we’re even represented in Congress by our man of the church; (11) The sermon; (12) Funeral; (13) Counterpoint of tears; (14) Chic chick; (15) Stopping traffic; (16) After church promenade; (17) Agreement a cappella; (18) Civil Rights demands; (19) March onward and upward; (20) Summary--contributions coda.
The KSU Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Ensemble 1 do a commendable job telling this compelling story. Following the strong opening trumpet solo, the clarinetist splendidly mimics the tone and smears made famous by Barney Bigard, and later in the work shows great control on the more tender side of the instrument. Ellington is not afraid to shift rapidly from swing to Latin to Romantic grooves throughout, something that could be dangerous in the hands of orchestral musicians not versed in the more modern styles, but the group here handles it all with aplomb. Through some genuinely difficult and chaotic sections, especially toward the end of the work, the ensemble obviously and rightfully trusts Parker to conduct them around any obstacles. They seem to genuinely be having a good time, and the audience is drawn in by their enthusiasm. Some of the larger leaps and disjunct lines that Ellington wrote cause the odd intonation issue here and there, but in the context of the work it takes away very little. There are professional groups who would do well not only to program this important work but to pull it off as well as this student ensemble. The faculty and students of KSU should be proud of this meaningful contribution to Ellingtonia.
Nathaniel F. Parker, DMA, Michigan State University, has conducted professional orchestras in the United States, Peru, Russia, Poland, England, and the Czech Republic. Equally at home working with professionals and training future generations of musicians, Parker is Director of Orchestral Studies at the Kennesaw State University School of Music—serving as Music Director and Conductor of the Kennesaw State University Symphony Orchestra—Associate Conductor of the Georgia Symphony Orchestra, and Music Director and Conductor of the Georgia Youth Symphony Orchestra. www.nathanielfparker.com