Duke Ellington’s Three Black Kings

 

Duke Ellington - composers of Three Black KingsDuke Ellington. The name immediately brings to mind jazz. Born Edward Kennedy Ellington, his legacy as an accomplished pianist and bandleader lives on today. But do you know he was also a composer of symphonic music? In fact, it was his inventive use of the orchestra that many point to as a reason that jazz was elevated to an art form on par with more traditional music genres.

Among his symphonic works are pieces like Black, Brown, and Beige Suite, Harlem, For Jazz Band and Orchestra, New World a-Comin’, and Les Trois Rois Noirs or, in English, Three Black Kings. This last piece was actually Ellington’s final work, composed at the time of his death in 1974. While laying in his hospital bed, he reportedly gave his son, Mercer, final instructions on how to complete the work. However, how much detail he gave is not clear. Mercer once lamented, “Pop had many superstitions, and one of them was never to finish writing a piece until the day of its initial performance. I analyzed it, trying to figure out how he intended to end it, but it wasn’t easy, because he left me no clues.”

Mercer Ellington completed the work and the result is a lush and alluring piece infused with African motifs, a warm down-home feeling, and the unmistakable jazz sound that made Duke Ellington famous. The New York Times noted about the work’s premiere, “…with its crescendo of gospel rhythms and its expressionist symbols of marches and martyrdom…moves the spectator” and The Daily News hailed the work as “An intensely moving vision…”.

The title of the work refers to the 3 movements, each depicting a different “king”: Balthazar the black king of the Magi, King Solomon, and Ellington’s good friend Dr. Martin Luther King. Mercer Ellington explained that his father, “intended it as a eulogy for Martin Luther King and he decided to go back into myth and history to include other black kings. Primitivity, the opening movement, represents [Balthazar,] the black king of the Magi. King Solomon is next, with the song of jazz and perfume and dancing girls and all that, then the dirge for Dr. King. The piece owes its inspiration to a stained glass window of the three Kings Ellington saw in the Cathedral del Mar in Barcelona.”

Come hear Three Black Kings performed by the Parker Symphony Orchestra on February 25 at 7:30 PM. with a special performance by DU Lamont School of Music’s Art Bouton.

 

Denver Area Black History Month 2017 Events

 

Updated 2/16/2017

African-American heritage is celebrated year-round in the Mile High City, but during Black History Month, it truly comes alive. Below are just some of the various Denver area Black History Month events you can take part in this February.

Black History Month Denver Area ConcertCelebrating Black Composers Throughout The Centuries: The Parker Symphony Orchestra and Parker Arts are presenting an amazing concert featuring works by composers of color from the late 1700’s to the late 1900’s. The program includes “Three Black Kings” by Duke Ellington with a saxophone solo performed by Art Bouton, Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and the Overture to “Treemonisha”, William Grant Still’s “Afro-American Symphony”, and the Overture in D by Joseph Bologne (also known as The Black Mozart). February 25 at 7:30 at PACE Center, 20000 Pikes Peak Ave., Parker, CO 80138 Tickets available here: https://parkerarts.ticketforce.com

Black American West Museum: Located in the former home of the first Black woman doctor in Denver, Dr. Justina Ford, the museum is dedicated to preserving the history and culture of the African American men and women who helped settle and develop the West. They will be hosting several educational speaking events. 3091 California St., Denver, CO 80205

Stiles African American Heritage Center: The mission of this museum and heritage center is to teach African American history 365 days of the year. They are located in Five Points, the heart of Denver’s historic African American community. They were named The Best of Denver by Westword Magazine for their rich cultural teachings. 2607 Glenarm Pl., Denver, CO 80205

Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library: This 3 story library houses a full-service branch, collection archives, and The Western Legacies Museum and Charles R. Cousins Gallery. The name of the library is a combination of the last names of Omar Blair, the first black president of the Denver school board, and Elvin Caldwell, the first black Denver City Council member. They host events throughout the year as well as during Black History Month including Black History Live – Harriet Tubman on 2/18 and the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame exhibit of Mildred Pitts Walter from 1/23 to 2/28. There is also a solo art exhibition by Christine Fontenot titled Chromatic Attraction through March 24.2401 Welton St., Denver, CO 80205

Hallowed Ground: The University of Denver Black Student Alliance and The Black Actors Guild present a multi-dimensional theater performance celebrating the cherished spaces in African American culture. Admission is free. February 11 at 6:30 PM. University of Denver Lindsay Auditorium
Strum Hall, 2000 E. Asbury ave, Denver, CO 80210

Black History Live - Harriet Tubman2017 Black History Live – Harriet Tubman Harriet Tubman is coming to Colorado. Becky Stone, a national humanities and Chautauqua scholar, will portray Harriet Tubman, showing everyone how one woman became an abolishonist and led hundreds of slaves to freedom. It will be held at various locations throughout the Denver metro area and beyond. See website for dates and locations. http://coloradohumanities.org/

A History Of Black Firefighters The Denver Firefighters Museum is presenting an exhibit about the brave African American firefighters who carved out a career in a historically segregated profession. 02/01/2017 to 02/28/2017. 1326 Tremont Place, Denver, Colorado 80204

History Colorado Center: The History Colorado museum presents the history of Colorado year-round, but on February 25, you can see Tim Johnson portray Sgt. Jack Hackett, a Buffalo Soldier. Buffalo Soldiers were the first peacetime all African American units formed after the Civil War. Ask him questions about the life of a soldier. 1200 Broadway, Denver, CO 80203

Author Toni Tipton-Martin Lecture, Food, and Book Signing: Enjoy food and a lecture with Toni Tipton-Martin, author of The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks. Book signing is also available. Wednesday, Feb. 22, 4-6 p.m. CentreTech S100 Rotunda, Community College of Aurora

“Black Women in Medicine”: Colorado premiere of documentary honoring black female doctors around the country, featuring rarely-seen documentation of black women practicing medicine during critical operations, emergency room urgent care and community wellness sessions. Includes first-hand accounts from black female pioneers in medicine and healthcare like Dr. Claudia Thomas and Dr. Jocelyn Elders. Airing, Sunday, Feb. 19 at 8 p.m. Colorado Public Television 12.1.

Incognito: A free, one-man play starring Michael Fosberg detailing the journey of discovery after learning that he is part African-American. A question-and-answer session with Fosberg will follow. Part of Aurora Race Forum Series. Wednesday, Feb. 15 – 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Community College of Aurora CentreTech Campus – 15900 E. Centretech Pkwy. – Aurora, CO 80011

Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Facilities Fundraiser: Enjoy a complimentary breakfast, tour the Cleo Parker Robinson dance facilities and hear from the legendary Cleo Parker Robinson, who will be honored for her accomplishments (Presented by Keller Williams Downtown RH Luxe Group). Saturday, Feb. 25 – 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Cleo Parker Robinson Dance – 119 Park Ave. West – Denver, CO 80205

 

Other Colorado African American History Articles and Resources:

A Look Back At Colorado’s Rich African American History

Denver’s Five Points

Joplin’s Treemonisha – Rediscovered For A New Generation

Black History at Denver Story Trek

Dearfield, Colorado

William Grant Still: A Man Of Many Firsts

Get To Know “The Black Mozart” – Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Bibliography of African Americans In Colorado And The West

Quiz: Test your Black History Month knowledge

 

Get To Know “The Black Mozart” – Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

 

Composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier De Saint-Georges

Name: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

His family name is often misspelled as “Boulogne”. He is sometimes referred to as “The Black Mozart”.

Born: December 25, 1745

Occupations: Composer, champion fencer, virtuoso violinist, and conductor of the Concert des Amateurs, a leading symphony in Paris. Was also a colonel in the French Revolution.

Other Interests: Dancing and ladies. He was a fine dancer, being invited to numerous balls and salons (and boudoirs) of highborn ladies.

Compositions: 3 sets of string quartets, 2 symphonies, 8 symphonie-concertantes, 6 operas comiques, three violin sonatas, 14 violin concertos, a sonata for harp and flute, a bassoon concerto, a clarinet concerto, a cello concerto, six violin duos, and a number of songs.

Notable Facts:

  • He is best remembered as the first classical composer of African ancestry. His father was a wealthy planter on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and his mother was an African slave. He was born on the island and moved to France as an early teenager.
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  • Upon graduation from the Académie royale polytechnique des armes et de ‘l’équitation (fencing and horsemanship), he was made an officer of the king’s bodyguard which is where he acquired the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
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  • He was such an amazing fencer that he was called “the god of arms”. At the age of 19, he had only suffered one defeat in a serious fencing match.
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  • Not much is known of his early music training although several works were dedicated to or written for him including two Lolli concertos and Gossec’s six string trios. His first composition is a set of six string quartets inspired by Haydn.
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  • He was a skilled violinist, but he also played the harpsichord.
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  • He was an early Black Mason. He conducted the Concert des Amateurs, a top Paris orchestra, for years, but after the American Revolution, the organization suffered financial losses. The Masons helped him revive the orchestra as part of the Loge Olympique, renamed Le Concert Olympique, which was an exclusive Freemason Lodge.
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  • He became fascinated by the stage, abandoning writing instrumental music in favor of opera around 1776. However, he suffered a serious setback when his nomination to be the next director of the Paris Opera was halted by a petition from three of its leading ladies. To avoid embarrassing the Queen, Marie-Antoinette, he withdrew his name. He went on to write operas and direct the Marquise de Montesson’s prestigious musical theater instead.
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  • He volunteered to serve during the French Revolution. He joined the Garde Nationale, but even his duties couldn’t prevent him from giving concerts. He built an orchestra and reportedly gave concerts every week.
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  • In 1794, he became colonel of the first cavalry brigade of “men of color” – the St. Georges’ Legion – which was also the first all black regiment in Europe. He lead 1,000 volunteers of color and halted what became known as “The Treason of Dumouriez”.
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  • He was wrongfully imprisoned for 11 months and threatened with execution after returning from military duties in Sant-Domingue (now Haiti). He was released and lived in semi-retirement, unfortunately with health problems. He did, however, become even more devoted to his violin during this time saying, “Never before did I play it so well”. He died in 1799 in Paris aged 53.
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  • President John Adams called him, “the most accomplished man in Europe”.

Below are some of his compositions you can listen to today. Or, to hear his music performed live, be sure to get tickets to the Parker Symphony’s upcoming concert “Celebrating Black Composers Throughout The Centuries”.

Symphony Op. 11, No. 1 in D major

Violin Concerto in G major, Op.2, No. 1

Quartet No. 3, Op. 14 in F minor

 

Joplin’s Treemonisha – Rediscovered For A New Generation

 

Scott Joplin - Composer of Treemonisha You may have heard of Scott Joplin and you may associate him with ragtime pieces such as “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag”, but did you know that he wrote two operas? One is titled “A Guest of Honor”. The other, “Treemonisha”, has been described as “charming and piquant and … deeply moving”. Although sometimes referred to as the “ragtime opera”, this is a misnomer because the rag style is used only sparingly. Instead, the score and libretto follow the European opera form with conventional arias, ensembles, and choruses.

Treemonisha is the name of the opera’s main character – a heroine who is kidnapped by a band of magicians. She eventually leads her community against the conjurers who prey on their superstition, teaching them the value of education and the liability of ignorance. It is said that the main character may have been inspired by Joplin’s second wife, Freddie Alexander, who herself was educated, well-read, and an activist for women and African-American rights.

While the story in the opera is entertaining and the music enchanting, the story behind the work and its performance is truly fascinating. It was completed in 1910. However, Joplin had to pay for a piano-vocal score to be published the following year. He sent a copy to the American Musician and Art Journal which wrote a glowing, full-page review of the work calling it, “entirely new phase of musical art and… a thoroughly American opera (style)”.

Unfortunately, the endorsement wasn’t enough. The opera was never fully staged in Joplin’s lifetime. Its only performance was a concert read-through in 1915 at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, where Joplin played the piano. This was also paid for by Joplin.

Treemonisha“Treemonisha” was subsequently forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1970 and performed for an entirely new generation. Excerpts were performed in 1971 at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, but it was the world premiere in 1972 that really brought this amazing work back into the spotlight. A joint production of the music department of Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, it was directed by the famous African-American dancer Katherine Dunham and conducted by Robert Shaw. It was well received by critics and audiences alike.

Since then, it has been performed by the Houston Grand Opera, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, and throughout Europe including several times in Germany. You can hear the Parker Symphony Orchestra perform the Overture from “Treemonisha” on February 25, 2017 at 7:30 PM at the PACE Center in Parker, CO. Discover this beautiful and once-forgotten piece for yourself next month.

 

William Grant Still: A Man Of Many Firsts

William Grant Still Portrait

 

When it comes to classical music, William Grant Still isn’t exactly a household name and that’s quite unfortunate because his music is truly captivating. I vividly remember the first time I heard his works. I had turned on CPR Classical one night a few years ago so my oldest daughter and I could play and listen to some good music.

Although I intended it to be in the background, I found myself really listening and wondering who wrote this amazing stuff. I could place the era – 20th century with some interesting jazz rhythms and influences – but I just couldn’t put my finger on the composer.

One check of the CPR site gave me the answer – Still.

And after further reading, I discovered there is much more to William Grant Still. He is much more than just a 20th century composer. He is also a man of many firsts who broke barriers.

  • He was the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra – the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936.
  • He conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra in 1955 becoming the first African American to conduct a major orchestra in the deep south.
  • His Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American” was the first symphony written by an African American for a leading US orchestra. It was first performed by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931. Hear the PSO perform it in February.
  • His opera Troubled Island was the first by an African American that was performed by a major company – the New York City Opera
  • He was the first African American to have an opera performed on national US Television. His A Bayou Legend premiered on PBS in 1981.

Still was prolific, writing 8 operas and numerous symphonies and ballets. He worked as an arranger for W.C. Handy’s band and later as an arranger of music for radio and film including movies like Pennies from Heaven and Lost Horizon. When looking at his body of work, it’s not hard to see how he earned the nickname “Dean of Afro-American Composers”.

Despite the fact that he is not as well known as say Beethoven, his works live on in performances by everyone from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. The Parker Symphony Orchestra will be performing his 1st Symphony on February 25. Purchase tickets here.