The Bucks County Choral Society is proud to have this opportunity to build on our history of performing music in the tradition of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts
with this program of new
works commissioned through the generosity of Karen and Michael Noland. With new music from three richly gifted composers, outstanding instrumentalists, and three truly inspired vocal soloists, including one of Duke Ellington's own favorites, DeVonne Gardner, we are excited to contribute to the continuation of this important American musical genre. We are also celebrating
these new works by closing with a set of arrangements of the African-American spiritual by Philadelphia composers, the musical tradition out of which jazz grew.
The emergence of sacred jazz
One of the pastors who befriended Duke Ellington was the Rev. Jack Yaryan of the Anglican Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Yaryan convinced the Dean of the cathedral, Rev. Julian Bartlett, to commission a concert of sacred jazz from Ellington and his band as part of a concert series in 1965 that also included the Britten War Requiem, a performance of the Bach Christmas
Oratorio with choreography, and a mass accompanied by the jazz instrumentals of the Vince Guaraldi Trio.
The burst of liturgical innovation that followed the ground-breaking reforms of Vatican II in the early 1960's resulted in a few efforts to bring jazz into the Roman Catholic liturgy by composers
such as Frank Tirro, Edgar Sommerlin, and Mary Lou Williams. Around the same time, a complete jazz setting of the Jewish liturgy written by a 17-year-old composer Jonathan Klein for his rabbi father's Temple Emanuel in Worcester Massachusetts that was recorded in New York in 1968 by emerging jazz stars Herbie Hancock, Thad Jones, Ron Carter, and Grady Tate.
Since that time, there have been relatively few composers following Ellington's lead in composing large scale sacred jazz works. One notable exception has been the large body of
sacred works from the jazz master Dave Brubeck, though in most of these the choir usually sings music written in a modernist classical style rather than in a jazz idiom. Jazz legend Billy Taylor
was commissioned by Tufts University in 1980 to write a work in the style of the Sacred Concerts called Make a Joyful Noise. Philadelphia based pianist, organist, and composer Trudy
Pitts wrote a full-length jazz cantata in 1996, A Joyful Noise, though the chorus here serves primarily a backup role. More recently, one of our featured composers in these concerts, Carl MaultsBy, wrote a remarkable "jazz requiem" entitled Strong and Graceful Oaks for his Rejoice Ensemble in New York City, devoted to the performance of sacred vocal jazz literature.
Ellington was not writing music to be used in the main liturgical service of the week, but in a concert setting, albeit one that was held in the church and as such intended to be devotional in nature. This gave him the creative freedom to incorporate the full-blown forces of big band jazz,
vocal soloists, large choirs singing in jazz style, and dancers. This non-liturgical setting also allowed him the freedom to set mostly his own original texts, in a highly personal style.
Putting such highly charged, openly emotive music into a sacred context, even outside a worship service, was and still is considered somewhat daring. In many churches, including most traditional black churches where gospel music reigns supreme, jazz is often viewed as tainted by its association with the worldly pursuits of the night clubs, brothels, and dance halls from which it emerged in the not-so-distant past. It was no accident that the first sacred jazz performances were in urban cathedrals or churches like St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York. These
churches had missions with a broader, more ecumenical reach than churches more closely tied to particular communities.
Writing jazz for the kind of large community or church chorus that would typically sing in such a
setting is also a challenge. The combination of complex harmonies and improvisatory use of
melody is much more easily suited to musicians or singers performing one-on-a-part. It's much
more difficult to sing in a flexible style or to tune complex close harmony chords with many
singers sharing the same note or melody. That's why auditioned community choirs like BCCS
have a special role to play in the development of this uniquely American idiom.
When composers have to "write out" in more explicit detail what singers and musicians in
smaller ensembles would typically learn and develop by ear, classically trained choirs have the
particular reading and rehearsal skills to work out the details so that everyone can "swing" on the
same notes at the same time. But as our singers will also tell you, getting to the point where the
notes on the printed page can come alive as sound, lyricism, and flow is a huge leap that we are
less confident in making. But this is the same challenge good choirs need to face with any music
we sing – the audience doesn’t see the dots on the page, they only hear the sound we sing. We
hope we have gotten "deep inside the music," as our composer Carl MaultsBy has us sing in
Praise, and that you will leave feeling invigorated and renewed by a great American tradition.