Saturday, March 24

Jazzed about Ellington’s legacy

UCLA to host Duke Ellington's 110th Birthday Anniversary Festival of Music; renowned musicians to perform diverse selection of his music


Dwight Trible will perform at the Duke Ellington 110th Birthday Anniversary Festival of Music, which will be held at Schoenberg Hall from April 4-5.

Dwight Trible will perform at the Duke Ellington 110th Birthday Anniversary Festival of Music, which will be held at Schoenberg Hall from April 4-5. courtesy of TODD HAWKINS

Paying homage to one of 20th century’s most prominent musicians, Duke Ellington’s 110th Birthday Anniversary Festival of Music celebrates Ellington’s most famous pieces as well as those seldom heard before.

“(Ellington) is one of the most important musicians of the 20th century, regardless of category. Not just jazz, but in all music,” said Kenny Burrell, director of Jazz Studies Program and executive producer of the festival. “The festival is a celebration of (his) 110th birthday because we feel like he should be treated and respected as the other great musicians during history.”

UCLA has had a strong connection to Duke Ellington for quite some time, stemming largely from well-known and respected jazz musician Burrell, who began teaching “Ellingtonia,” the first class on Ellington’s life and music in the U.S., in 1978.

Professor and big band director Charley Harrison is also an Ellington aficionado who spent the early parts of his life intensively studying and transcribing Ellington’s music.

With such faculty ties to Ellington and his music, it is only fitting for UCLA to hold the two-day music festival. There have been similar events hosted all over the country, including one in June in Washington D.C.

“UCLA, as long as I’ve been here, has had a reputation for being a pro-Duke Ellington school thanks to Kenny (Burrell),” said Nick DePinna, a classical composition graduate student. “We really emphasize the importance of not just his music but all aspects of his life.”

Streaming from the expertise of renowned faculty such as Burrell, the concept for a grandiose two-day musical festival actually started out on a much smaller scale.

Burrell originally wanted to host a concert of Ellington’s sacred pieces but was unable to book a main hall at UCLA. As a different venue was discussed, the idea eventually transformed itself to the full-fledged festival.

“Fast-forward a few months, and all of a sudden the idea of (a concert of) just Ellington’s sacred music has quadrupled in size to eight events over two full days,” DePinna said. “It was entirely Burrell’s idea, and I think it just kind of kept growing as time went on.”

The festival’s first day features the UCLA Philharmonia performing some of the works Ellington wrote for a large orchestra. Renowned vocalist and Grammy award winner Dee Dee Bridgewater will join the Philharmonia as a special guest. Student jazz combos will also perform Ellington compositions earlier in the day, and a string quartet will perform Ellington’s “Music for String Quartet,” featuring solos by faculty and guests, including Burrell.

“All of these are classical formats, so we kind of call this our classical night,” Burrell said. “It’s going to be a very special evening.”

Sunday afternoon will be a Southern California premiere of one of Duke Ellington’s forgotten folk operas called “Queenie Pie.”

The opera is rarely heard, as it was not finished during Ellington’s lifetime. With no recordings done by Ellington ““ just manuscripts ““ the opera was finished in orchestration by Marc Bolin, who will also be conducting the piece.

Though certainly not one of Ellington’s better-known works, “Queenie Pie” was essential for the festival to showcase the different aspects and dimensions of Ellington’s repertoire.

“I think that we need to show every aspect of Ellington. Most people don’t think of him having anything to do with opera,” Burrell said. “Because we’re celebrating (Ellington), we want to expose and showcase as many aspects of his work as possible. I think that having (the orchestration) done, (“Queenie Pie”) will have a new life.”

After the opera premiere, Ellington’s sacred music ““ the original inspiration for the concert ““ will entertain the crowd. Singer Dwight Trible will perform a part of the excerpts from every sacred piece written by Ellington.

The large concert Sunday evening will then feature the three UCLA big bands, including the Jazz Orchestra conducted by Harrison, the Contemporary Jazz Orchestra conducted by Burrell and James Newton, and featuring conductor DePinna on two pieces. The third ensemble is the Latin Jazz Ensemble conducted by Bobby Rodriguez.

One of the pieces conducted by DePinna is a student arrangement of Ellington’s musical score from “Prelude to a Kiss.”

Dan Marschak, a student pianist in the jazz studies department used melody and chord changes in the original Ellington piece and stretched it out over a new chord progression that he came up with. Marschak also put new time signatures in the piece, changing the rhythmic style.

“If you know the Ellington piece, you will recognize the tune, but it will sound very different from the original,” DePinna said. “It will be very challenging for us to be working from scratch on something which was never played before.”

Apart from the three large orchestral groups, more faculty solos will be featured, and special guests will return to the stage, including Bridgewater, Trible and Herb Jeffries, who recorded with Ellington himself.

The two-day festival will touch on every style of music written by Ellington and showcase the talents of roughly 80 UCLA musicians and vocalists, multiple award-winning artists, and faculty and guests who worked with the musical legend.

The department invites all to celebrate Ellington by learning more about his musical life as well as experiencing the modern additions to his works.

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