SFJazz salutes 50th anniversary of Ellington’s ‘Sacred’ concert

To get a sense of just how radical it was for Grace Cathedral to commission Duke Ellington's “A Concert of Sacred Music” as the centerpiece of the church's 1965 consecration, consider what was happening on the other side of the country.
In May of that year, the Pulitzer Prize music jury voted unanimously to present the maestro with a “special citation for long-term achievement,” a proposal immediately shot down by the Pulitzer board. In public, the 66-year-old Ellington dismissed the snub with characteristic sangfroid, famously remarking, “Fate's being kind to me. Fate doesn't want me to be too famous too young.”

But in private, jazz's greatest composer denounced the Jim Crow mentality that saw African American music as unworthy of serious attention, telling critic Nat Hentoff, “In this country, jazz has always been the kind of man you wouldn't want your daughter to associate with.”

Lasting impression

Yet four months later, on Sept. 16, San Francisco's cultural establishment didn't just usher the Ellington Orchestra and a glittering array of black artists into the front parlor. Grace Cathedral's Very Rev. C. Julian Bartlett and the Rev. John S. Yaryan escorted them to the altar and gave the jazz-steeped production pride of place.

While the event didn't really break new ground for Ellington musically — he drew mostly on his earlier suites “Black, Brown and Beige” and “My People” — the deeply spiritual bandleader considered the concert among the most significant in his career. He went on to write and present two more sacred music concerts before his death in 1974.

As part of SFJazz's 2015-16 season, the organization celebrates the 50th anniversary of “A Concert of Sacred Music” on Sept. 17. Presented in collaboration with Grace Cathedral, the concert features new orchestrations by SFJazz Collective alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, and an eye-opening cast, including tap genius Savion Glover, Terrance Kelly and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, Grammy Award-winning jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, and gospel star Queen Esther Marrow, who made her professional debut as part of the original production.

“When you think about the times in 1965, with the civil rights movement and the creative ferment in black music, this piece is just incredible,” says Randall Kline, SFJazz executive artistic director. “At this church's most important moment, to choose Duke Ellington to consecrate it after more than 30 years of construction was such a statement. And the musicians all rose to the occasion.”

Manageable piece

Kline can evaluate the premiere because “A Concert of Sacred Music” is one of jazz's best-documented events. Ralph J. Gleason, The Chronicle's jazz and pop music critic, produced the KQED documentary “A Concert of Sacred Music,” capturing the entire evening along with candid interviews with Ellington. The film is available on YouTube and on a DVD paired with “Love You Madly,” Gleason's Emmy-nominated documentary covering the Ellington Orchestra's 1965 tour.

SFJazz presented a silver anniversary sacred music concert in 1990 featuring a number of the original performers, but Kline hadn't planned to tackle the work again until Rebecca Nestle, Grace Cathedral cultural program manager, approached him and helped line up underwriting for the ambitious undertaking.

In much the same way that the SFJazz Collective reimagines compositions by jazz and pop composers (this season they're tackling the music of Michael Jackson), Zenón set about to transform Ellington's brimming orchestral work into a more acoustically manageable chamber piece.

He's retained all the essential elements, distilling Ellington's score for a jazz sextet and woodwind ensemble. While Ellington featured his incandescent saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves at Grace, he was more interested in creating awe than showcasing his orchestra's singular instrumental voices.

Orchestrator Zenón is taking a “less is more” approach, “reducing the size of the band so you get to hear things clearer, so you can take advantage of the acoustics of the church,” he says. “For the most part, I kept the sequence and flow the way it was, though I extended one of the themes to create a form and a tune out of something that just passed by quickly. I did that in a few spots, expanding on an Ellingtonian cell to create sections for people to solo.”

Some of the libretto, which Jon Hendricks delivered at Grace in 1965, dated quickly, but the central theme that runs through the concert, “Come Sunday,” is one of Ellington's most powerful. Introduced in 1943's “Black, Brown and Beige,” his symphonic “tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America,” the spiritual was interpreted majestically by Mahalia Jackson on a 1958 Ellington album.

At Grace Cathedral, Ellington tapped a 22-year-old singer so unknown that her name was misspelled Esther Merrill in the concert's program. Marrow grew up singing in church, but had virtually no professional experience before a mutual connection dropped her name to the maestro and he flew her out for an audition at Lake Tahoe. These days, Marrow is an international gospel star who spends most of her time performing in Europe with the Harlem Gospel Singers.

“I was working in the garment district in New York City,” she recalls. “I did not have plans to become a singer, and it all just kind of fell together after the sacred concert in San Francisco. Afterwards, Ellington invited me to perform with the orchestra at the Monterey Jazz Festival and then asked, 'Would you like to finish the Midwest tour with me?' It was so very exciting and overwhelming.”

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A Concert of Sacred Music: 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 17. $40-$80. Grace Cathedral, 1100 California St., S.F. (866) 920-5299. www.sfjazz.org