Adventure Without Boundaries

I recently attended a concert at Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Master Chorale, complete with a large big band, three vocal soloists and a great tap dancer, performed the Best of the Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts to a standing ovation. It was amazing. With the finesse of a master dancer and the power of a big band and more than a hundred voices, it was an adventure in music I will never forget. Especially because I was one of the lucky ones to see Duke conduct his own orchestra at the world premiere of the first Sacred Concert at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1965. Witnessing the great Bunny Briggs fill the cathedral with the sound of tap was an inspiration.

Duke Ellington’s music included the hundreds of popular dance tunes he is famous for. Songs like Sophisticated Lady and I Got It Bad. But his compositions went far beyond the hit parade. He composed many extended works that stretched his band far beyond the realm of the expected jazz repertoire. Duke never liked boundaries, either in race, religion or music. He wasn’t jazzed over the fact that people called his music jazz. He had no use for genres. He once famously said, “There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.”

I’m reminded of the scene in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King where Merlin turned the young Arthur into a goose. Arthur sees, as he flies south with a skein of companions, no boundaries on the earth below. That’s a life lesson each of us should be fortunate enough to learn.

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