Hannah Lewis finds out how Duke Ellington’s big band is building cultural bridges 36 years after his death
Having a man who passed away 36 years ago conduct a big-band performance may sound impossible, but that’s exactly what will happen at The Palladium this week. On May 27, The Duke Ellington Center Big Band will play Panoramajazz, a performance held together not by the wave of a baton, but by a collective passion for the music, the message and the ‘spirit’ of Duke Ellington.
Born in 1899 in Washington, DC, Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington went on to become one of America’s most widely acclaimed jazz musicians and its most prolific composer of the last century. He was so prolific, in fact, that you’ve almost certainly heard his music, even if you’ve never heard his name. ‘Thousands of short melodies you hear in advertising, ringtones and riffs, as well as numerous samples found in contemporary music forms such as hip hop, are frequently Duke Ellington originals,’ explains Dr Otto Starzmann, from the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts in New York. ‘Even though Duke passed away in 1974, he is by no means dead.’
But how can you have a Duke Ellington Big Band without the titular conductor? It’s a question Dr Starzmann has little time for. ‘It would be totally incorrect to say that our production is “without Duke Ellington”. Duke is the total essence, body and soul of this show. Of course, no one can duplicate Duke’s performance as a conductor, which is why The Duke Ellington Center Orchestra today always performs without a conductor – at least not a visible one.’
Instead, Duke lives on not only in the band’s music, but also in its message of tolerance and unity. As Mercedes Ellington, the show’s producer, director and hostess – and Duke’s granddaughter – explains, this message was at the core of Duke’s being. ‘He taught me to explore beyond categories; not to give myself boundaries and labels. [He] felt that labels tend to restrict you and keep you back from achieving greater things.’
These ideas led Mercedes to create Panoramajazz, which makes its debut this month in Dubai. The name combines the English ‘panorama’ with the Arabic ‘majaz’ (which roughly translates to ‘bridge’) and aims to invoke, as Starzmann puts it, ‘overwhelmingly positive connotations of expansiveness, harmoniousness and life without boundaries’ by encouraging cultural exchange between the US and the UAE.
Panoramajazz combines the music of Duke Ellington – performed by an enormous jazz orchestra – with a physical dance performance choreographed by Mercedes, whose background is in dance. It’s a blurring of boundaries that is very much in keeping with Duke’s style and, argues Dr Starzmann, with jazz itself. ‘Jazz is essentially freedom. More than any other music form, it allows musicians from any part of the world to integrate their own styles, forms and genres into it. It has become what Duke thought music should always be: a messenger of harmony.’
And that principle is best illustrated by Mercedes’ most enduring memory of her grandfather: a visit to Russia with him in the 1970s, when the Cold War had US and the then-USSR at loggerheads. ‘We were invited to a special performance of Swan Lake by the Bolshoi Ballet… they held the performance until we arrived. We were then shown to our own special box. After we sat down, the conductor came out, looked directly at my grandfather, and bowed in acknowledgement.
The entire symphony orchestra of more than 100 musicians all turned to my grandfather and smiled. He waved back. It was an extraordinary moment. The entire experience in Russia was very moving… the people of Russia just loved us. When our plane was taking off, hundreds of people ran alongside the aircraft, waving and jumping. It was impossible to hold them back.’