Duke Ellington Harlem Program Notes
Duke Ellington’s prolific composing and performing career led to approximately 1000 works, such as songs “Take the A-Train,” “Caravan,” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” as well as some longer works, including tone-poems, and fascinating “Swinging Suites,” jazz versions of both Grieg’s Peer Gynt incidental music and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.
Ellington’s music was informed by his musical collaborators who, possibly befitting a composer born in Washington, DC, represented (at various times) New Orleans, Mobile, Boston, Puerto Rico and Jamaica. The band’s engagement at New York’s Cotton Club (1927-31) required longer pieces for the dance numbers, encouraging Ellington to develop longer pieces, including his 1931 Creole Rhapsody – longer than would fit on a 78-speed record.
The Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini was reputed to have commissioned Harlem as part of a larger New York Suite (or if not Toscanini, one of his assistant conductors with the NBC Symphony), but only Harlem came to fruition, and it saw its premiere in a cancer benefit concert on June 20, 1951, at Lewisohn Stadium, on the campus of City College of New York (CUNY), with Ellington conducting an ensemble combining members of his band with the NBC Symphony.
In his posthumous 1976 Memoirs, Music is my Mistress, Ellington wrote:
We would now like to take you on a tour of this place Harlem… It is a Sunday morning. We are strolling from 110th Street up Seventh Avenue, heading north through the Spanish and West Indian neighborhoods towards the 125th Street business area… you may hear a parade go by, or a funeral, or you may recognize the passage of those who are making Civil Rights demands.
Ellington equated the descending minor-third trumpet solo motif as the word “Har-lem,” in the brief introduction that gives way to a “moderate swing” section, opened by the saxophones, harmonizing the Harlem motif. A new, jazzy theme, in French horn, emerges over a bustling pizzicato line. After its development, a rhumba (with cowbell, and gourds) invites the return of the Harlem motif, and gradually accelerates to a grinding climax. It’s followed by the funeral Ellington mentioned, in New Orleans style – that is, polyphonic, with solo clarinet, saxophone and trombone carrying a theme which takes over most of the remainder of the piece. Eventually, the tone-poem’s opening material interrupts, leading to a percussion cadenza, which Ellington at one point remarked should “take us all the way back to Senegal.” The opening material returns for the final, loud, and grand coda.
This edition we’re performing was prepared by Maurice Peress, former Bernstein assistant, conductor of the Kansas City Symphony, and Queens College (CUNY), who passed away last year.