Duke 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.”
The PSO performed Three Black Kings on February 25, 2017 with a special performance by DU Lamont School of Music’s Art Bouton.