Don Shirley: Solo Piano, Concert and Chamber Music

Photo By Salvatore Vuono, published on 14 January 2011, courtesy of Digital

Photo By Salvatore Vuono, published on 14 January 2011, courtesy of

Between the years 1955 and 1960 Don Shirley performed in a variety of contexts which included solo piano, piano with trio (bass and cello), and symphony orchestra.  Uniquely, one concert with orchestra was his role in performing the piano part of Duke Ellington’s hauntingly beautiful “New World A-Comin’” piano concerto or orchestral suite with piano.  This was a role for which Duke Ellington customarily reserved the piano to himself.  On only one occasion did Ellington assign the role of piano soloist to someone else – Don Shirley.  This occurred on March 16, 1955  at Carnegie Hall when Ellington took up the baton and Mr. Shirley was the pianist – a singular mark of respect.  Reputedly, Don Shirley later commented that it was the hardest piece of music he ever had to learn.  However all of Don Shirley’s musical training and education gave him the tools to succeed at this difficult task.  Consider his solo piano album Pianist Extraordinary, Cadence Records CLP 3048.  In his program notes he states he uses transcription as opposed to arrangements:

“An arrangement consists of rearranging notes to serve a purpose.  A transcription on the other hand is essentially a re-composition.”

On the album he proceeds to describe in detail just what he means.  For example, on his performance of How Deep is the Ocean (Irving Berlin), Don Shirley explains that he employed a form of Mozzoarabic Chant (“an early Eastern form which led to the Gregorian Chant”):

“I’ve used a chorale form with four part harmony.  It’s also in a two part song form.  The original melody is one part and the introduction becomes the meat of the second part. I’ve tried to emphasize the much part of the lyric, how much do I love you? with the second part attempting to answer how much.”

The excellent liner notes to Cadence CLP 3048 by George T. Simon, allow Don Shirley to explain his thoughts on music, performance, and technique so well.  The pianist explains his conception of each song and what each song needs to complete the artistic presentation. There is a reason for not purchasing digital downloads of classical music and jazz, and the reason is that the buyer only gets the music and not the thoughts behind the music – the reason the music was created in the first place.  On the Cadence album Don Shirley Plays Standards, the pianist performs “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart” which is actually a blend of three Ellington songs “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “I Let A Song…” and “Jump for Joy” (from Ellington’s African American Musical of the same name.)  Don Shirley manages to bring out the beauty of each piece while letting each song reflect the sonorities of the others.  It’s an amazing arrangement…and very heartfelt.  Apparently, Duke Ellington was very appreciative of Shirley’s “transcription” of these well-known Ellington classics because it was decided by the two of them that Don would feature it as the encore presentation after the performance at Carnegie Hall on the night of March 16, 1955 of Ellington’s “New World A-Comin’” piano concerto.  Duke honored Don by having him perform the piano part of the concerto (usually reserved for Ellington), and Don in turn paid tribute to Duke by weaving the melodies and harmonies of the three Ellington pieces into a solo piano concert work to conclude the Carnegie Hall performance.

Resources Available to Consult:

This Carnegie Hall concert featuring New World A-Comin’ was released on the Italian label, Musica Jazz 2MJP 1021 in 1984.  The album is titled Duke Ellington – Le Suites Sinfoniche.  It is available on vinyl LP, CD and on digital download.  For some reason, Don Shirley is not identified as the pianist on the piano concerto, but the date March 16, 1955 confirms that Mr. Shirley is indeed the piano soloist.

Symphonic Ellington?  Rehearing New World A-Comin’ ; David Schief.  The Music Quarterly, Vol 96, Issue 3-4, pp. 459-477.  This article fully explores the conception behind Ellington’s piano concerto and discusses the role played by Don Shirley in the concert performance of New World A-Comin’ in the March 16, 1955 performance at Carnegie Hall.  It also analyzes the structure of this composition.

Duke Ellington As Pianist:  A Study of Styles.  Mathew J. Cooper, College Music Society, 2013.  The author explores the style and technique of Ellington the pianist.  The author provides numerous insights into the unique Ellington approach to improvisation and composition.  The book includes the author’s transcriptions of works discussed.

Four Symphonic Works by Duke Ellington.  Maurice Peress conducting the American Composers Orchestra.  Nimbus Records CD and also Music Masters CD.  Soloists Roland Hanna (piano), and Jimmy Heath (woodwinds.) Roland Hanna is another jazz pianist who learned the complexities of the Ellington piano style in order to perform New World A-Comin’ with a symphony and jazz orchestra.  Formidable technique is in evidence throughout this performance.

Don Shirley.  Pianist Extraordinary.  Cadence 25048 or Collectables CD 2759.

Don Shirley.  Plays Standards.  Cadence 3033 or Collectables CD 2789.

Dvorak to Duke Ellington:  A Conductor Explores America’s Music and Its African American Roots.  Maurice Peress, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Don Shirley’s original Cadence albums have been transferred to digital CD and are available on the series called “Collectables”  (see  There are all highly recommended for their highly artistic and sumptuous melodic performances.


Ellington Songbook Featured at Stanford Jazz Festival 2014


Image courtesy of By Nick Coombs, published 2008, at

San Francisco Bay Area musician, composer, and educator, Marcus Shelby, brought his jazz orchestra to the Dinkelspiel Auditorium at Stanford University on an unseasonably warm June afternoon for a celebration of the music of Duke Ellington. Also featured with the Marcus Shelby Orchestra was gifted jazz singer Denise Perrier, who has a rich history of performing and recording with such jazz greats as Red Holloway and Houston Person. The Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra is a performing orchestra which plays many venues, jazz clubs, colleges, and festivals. In fact, the MSJO had just recently played a concert in May at U.C. Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall featuring the music of Duke Ellington – his renowned Such Sweet Thunder Suite. Marcus Shelby is a prolific composer and arranger who has composed and recorded three soul-stirring creations depicting very heroic and tragic events in African- American history for which he has received numerous grants and commissions: Port Chicago, Harriet Tubman, and Soul of the Movement. The members of MSJO also pursue their own career paths, and many of the band members have their own jazz ensembles. The featured vocalist, Denise Perrier, has traveled extensively throughout the world performing on concert stages in Europe and Asia as well as the United States. Ms. Perrier’s acknowledged idols are Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington. The pairing of Denise Perrier with the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra appeared to be an inspired decision as both artists have a strong appreciation for and love of the music associated with Duke Ellington.

The artistic and executive director for the Stanford Jazz Festival, Jim Nadel, welcomed everyone to an afternoon celebrating the music of Duke Ellington. He told the audience how pleased and happy they were to secure the talents of  Marcus Shelby and Denise Perrier. Mr. Nadel acknowledged some of the Bay Area jazz celebrities in the audience such as Sonny Buxton, the founder of legendary Pearl’s Night Club in San Francisco, and program announcer on Jazz FM 91.1 KCSM. He also informed the audience that several very talented students from this year’s Stanford Jazz camp and last year’s student camp would be joining the orchestra at various intervals to take solos and to join the ensemble. The concert soon began as the band leader and bassist, Marcus Shelby, took the stage wearing his trademark wool fedora. He started off with Juan Tizol’s composition Perdido (using the 1950’s Ellington Uptown arrangement.)

The challenge that all artists have in presenting the music of an earlier jazz style is how to stay true to the original while presenting music that is vital and dynamic today. Duke Ellington himself faced this same issue since his band recorded over five full decades. He had to face this challenge every time new members joined his orchestra while established artists left. Marcus Shelby has chosen to follow Ellington’s strategy by allowing the members of his orchestra the latitude to play their own solos in their own style incorporating all the newest developments in jazz. At the same time the concert goer to this event could clearly sense how much respect and admiration for the Duke Ellington organization is exemplified by the Shelby Jazz Orchestra. The Ellington sound was clearly evident in many of the ensemble passages, while the individual members of the orchestra developed their own solos which reflected their skills and strengths. The alto sax soloist, Marcus Stephens, played a beautiful Johnny Hodges style alto passage on I Let a Song Go out of My Heart. The trumpet section was outstanding. On occasion two trumpets would improvise collectively just as the Ellington trumpet section was wont to do. Fil Lorenz on baritone sax delivered outstanding solos which grew organically from the source material but became his own creation through improvisation. Tom Griesser is a major saxophone talent whose solos were strikingly original and compelling. The entire sax section delighted and surprised the audience when they doubled on clarinet for the melodic blues Creole Love Call. This arrangement was a direct reproduction of Ellington’s 1932 arrangement. Trumpeter Geechi Taylor provided the Ellington touch with his mute and ‘growl’ trumpet obbligatos.

Shelby directed the band by standing with his back to the audience but facing the musicians, in a manner similar to other famous bassist/band leaders such as Chubby Jackson and Charles Mingus. The sound of his bass was deep, rhythmic, and firm. The second concert piece was a vigorous performance by the pianist, Joe Warner, of James P. Johnson’s You Gotta Be Modernistic. Director Shelby told the audience he wanted to include this piece since Ellington was strongly influenced by the great Harlem stride pianists of his day, and James P. Johnson, was perhaps the strongest influence on the young Ellington. The concert segued into such familiar Ellington compositions as: In My Solitude, Creole Love Call, and C Jam Blues. One of the advantages of having jazz greats performing at the festival is it gives an opportunity for graduates and participants of the Stanford Jazz Camp an opportunity each year to perform with seasoned veterans. This year was no exception. Joining the trombone section of the Marcus Shelby Orchestra was a young woman who only graduated from the Stanford Jazz Camp last year and is now a professional musician living and working in New York. She took a full 32-bar solo on the beautiful Ellington ballad “All Too Soon” as well as contributing several other shorter solos on other Ellington compositions. Also joining the band before the headliner appeared was a young man who is a current student at Jazz Camp. He sang on Solitude and Caravan and his deep voice and relaxed style were a big hit with the audience. When the Orchestra moved into high gear with C Jam Blues with solos from the saxophones, trumpets and trombones, pianist Joe Warner completed the rhythm-section sound with his Ellingtonesque chords. It is interesting to note that the band director used a Count Basie arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Solitude letting the trumpets give free range to their employment of wa-wa and plunger mutes which blended the band sounds of both the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras.

It was a full hour before Ms. Denise Perrier, took the stage. She kicked things off with a vigorous It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got that Swing. There are some singers who can take a song that everyone has heard a million times, and sing it in a way where you have never heard the song before. Denise Perrier is such a vocalist. Her voice was beautiful, distinctive, bold, and sinewy. Her control of timing, swing and tempo was a pleasure to hear. A true jazz singer, vocalist, and song stylist! She then introduced her own Ellington Medley which was especially arranged for her by Wayne Wallace, the famed trombone player, arranger and composer who has succeeded David Baker as the new Director of Jazz Studies at Indiana University. This arrangement showcased five familiar Ellington melodies: Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me, Mood Indigo, Satin Doll, and ending with Take The A Train. The originality of the medley arrangement plus the verve and sophistication of Ms. Perrier’s interpretations made each song a gem to be treasured. After the Ellington Medley, Marcus Shelby, mentioned that sometimes small groups of sextet or septet size would often record and perform selections from the Ellington Songbook. These groups, he mentioned, were often led by Johnny Hodges or Billy Strayhorn. In the spirit of these smaller groups, Denise Perrier, sang two classics: All Too Soon and I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart. It was All Too Soon with a gorgeous 32-bar trombone solo (reminiscent of Lawrence Brown) and a bass solo performed by Shelby which to my ears stole the show. Ms. Perrier’s voice, the bass, and the shimmering trombone cadenza were sheer musical ambrosia. The Ellington Songbook Concert closed with Denise Perrier singing a rousing, spritely version of I’m Just a Lucky So and So. After wonderful ensemble passages, a great vocal treatment, and many fine solos by the full band (and especially the drummer, Jeff Marrs) the concert came to a close – a full two hours after it had begun. The audience gave the artists a long standing ovation. Many in the audience could have stayed for an additional hour or two, but as Marcus Shelby said to us, “There is just too much music in the Ellington Book…thousands and thousands of songs, suites, and concert pieces…which cannot be played in a single day” – although, some of us would have been happy should he have chosen to try.

Donald Shirley



Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at


Growing up in the Chicago area as a kid I heard Don Shirley records all the time on the several jazz FM radio stations.  They would regularly play Billy Taylor, the latest Ahmad Jamal, Phineas Newborn Jr, Eddie Higgins, Ramsey Lewis, and Don Shirley.  It never occurred to me that he wasn’t a jazz musician.  Sure he had an unusual trio (piano, bass, and cello), but all the jazz groups were a bit unusual back then:  Chico Hamilton Quintet; The Mitchell-Ruff Duo:  John Lewis and the MJQ ; Bob Cooper and Bub Shank featured flute and oboe. The recordings Don Shirley made with bassist, Richard Davis were smokin’ – they were so hot.  On They Can’t Take That Away from Me (Don Shirley Plays Gershwin) Davis played a super-charged walking bass while Shirley switched between blues, stride, concert, and Teddy Wilson-style piano.  And then, of course, there was “Water Boy” and “Drown in My Own Tears” – blues and gospel on every track.  I think Don Shirley mixed up styles and demonstrated that swing, concert piano, and gospel can all work together.  We can hear his influence in many of the major piano artists since that time.  I know that Mr. Shirley publicly stated that he was “not a jazz musician” but I think he was simply trying to avoid being pigeon-holed.  However, his statements have worked against him in terms of getting the recognition he deserves.  We all owe him a debt of gratitude. He never made a bad record and he never bowed to the type of commercialism that has taken its toll on the music industry today.  I think he and Duke Ellington had much in common in this regard – a deep appreciation for quality.

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child is one of the most melancholy and beautiful expressions of loneliness and the sense of being ‘lost’ that I know.”

– Don Shirley (1960) liner notes to Piano Arrangements of Famous Spirituals

Pianist, Don Shirley, recorded his Piano Arrangements of Famous Spirituals a full four years before the epic Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.  He did so because “Musicologists all over the world recognize that the Negro spiritual is by far the greatest art form to come out of this country…I found that these spirituals had a great impact on me, particularly in the light of current events (circa 1960), and I began to realize that generally not too much is understood about the Negro spiritual…The basic fact about the Negro spiritual is that it is a medium of expression that transcends all the horrors on earth, all the pain the Negro suffered in this country.  And the beauty of it was, this could never be taken away from him; the spiritual was an area of privacy that could never be invaded.”

In 1962 Don Shirley released Drown In My Own Tears – Cadence CLP 3057/Stereo CLP 25057 which demonstrated his ability to play gospel, blues, and jazz much in the manner of Ray Charles.  In fact, several of the songs on the album are essentially rhythm and blues:  Drown in My Own Tears, Stand by Me, Georgia, Amen, Just for a Thrill, and the Etta James’ classic At Last (which was originally composed by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for the Glenn Miller band.)  “In these songs I’m coming back to the roots,” he explained in the liner notes “Trying to find any way to play honestly and truthfully has been difficult…I happen to be the living example of something I’m not able to identify myself with…”  In his liner notes Don Shirley is telling us that he realized that he wasn’t fully in touch with himself and his roots. It wasn’t enough to be playing a hybrid conservatory style music as a college-educated (three doctorates) classically-trained pianist while living in a country being torn apart by racism and segregation and the cultural “bad faith” of Jim Crow racism – a hypocritical practice of racism while espousing equality for all.  As an African-American man and artist he knew that European school of music he grew up in was not addressing his needs or the needs of his people.  He made the radical decision to play differently…to play from his soul…and in the process he discovered who Don Shirley really was.  His need to express himself musically liberated him.  The album Drown in My Own Tears isn’t just another long-playing record, it is a statement, a testament and a magnificent artistic achievement.  A lot of classically trained musicians attempt to play jazz and blues, but they fail because it is a sham, a fakery…they are merely posturing  in order to be commercial.  On this album, Don Shirley came as close as anyone ever has to discovering himself through his music.  It is a remarkable achievement.  On every song, Shirley foregoes his awesome technique, and simply plays from the soul.  He lets his music speak through him in an honest and unpretentious manner.  Listening to this album is a healing experience for anyone.  It is as honest as a recording can be.  John Coltrane created  a similar cathartic experience  in his monumental recording  “Alabama” a year later.








Jim Hall and Jazz Guitar

 Image By Theeradech Sanin, published on 29 January 2014 courtesy of

Image By Theeradech Sanin, published on 29 January 2014 courtesy of

Jim Hall wasn’t just a jazz guitarist…first, and foremost, he was a great musician.  Like Bill Evans for the piano Jim made us hear the guitar anew.  In his hands the guitar took its rightful place in the arena of jazz and became the artistic instrument it was always capable of being.  Jim Hall took his inspiration from the great jazz artists of his era and from a few before him.  Born in 1930 he was to too young to hear in person the great Ellington Orchestra in its prime, but his solos had the phrasing of the great saxophone players Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges…in other words, sheer artistic perfection.  But he also listened to Charlie Christian, and Jim’s earliest records for Pacific Jazz show the strong influence of the famed originator of the amplified jazz guitar.  In a recording with Art Farmer in the mid-1960’s Hall even quotes Charlie Christian directly on their version of Stomping at the Savoy.  Jim also absorbed the influence of the great rhythm guitarists of the swing era – especially Freddie Green, and Jim could mesmerize an audience with the light, bouncy swing of rhythm chords during another musician’s  solo.  In other words, Jim Hall mastered the history of early jazz guitar holding on to all its essentials while he also explored the newer forms of modern jazz with its altered chords and newer scales and harmonies.  He combined the best of tradition and modern exploration.  This is why his records do not sound dated as some recordings of other guitarists do.  Hall could ‘blend’ his sound with any instrumentalist and any rhythm section.  Sometimes his presence was almost transparent except that he was always, always contributing.  By the mid-1960’s Jim Hall was much sought after by jazz musicians and he never had to play with inferior players.  Some of the musicians who wanted him in their groups included arrangers Claus Ogerman and Gary McFarland, tenor saxophone legend Sonny Rollins, flugelhorn player Art Farmer, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, and of course pianist Bill Evans.  The two recordings by Bill Evans and Jim Hall redefined the concept of “duet” and quietly rocked the jazz world.  Nothing was ever the same again!  Jim Hall is often referred to as the ‘poet laureate’ of jazz guitar, but on the Evans/Hall version My Funny Valentine these two musicians played an incendiary performance of this well- known ballad.  (Hall had accomplished the same fiery intensity in his recording with Paul Desmond on Cole Porter’s I Get a Kick Out of You on a Warner Brothers album.)  Musicians sounded at their absolute best when playing with Jim Hall.  Even musicians of this high caliber reached even deeper into themselves  and discovered levels of playing that they probably didn’t even know existed.  Jim Hall’s versatility as a musician/guitarist was first demonstrated in two unusual jazz ensembles in the 1950’s:  The Chico Hamilton Quintet (recording on Pacific Jazz) and The Jimmy Guiffre Three (Atlantic Records).  The unusual textures achieved in the Hamilton Quintet were amazing (the group featured guitar, flute or alto and cello – yes, that’s right, the cello!)  With Guiffre, Jim played in one group which featured bassist Ralph Pena and multi-instrumentalist, Guiffre…but the truly amazing ensemble is the one called The Western Suite which features only Jim Hall on guitar, Guiffre on sax and clarinet, and Bob Brookmeyer playing valve trombone.  On that recording Jim Hall’s guitar represents what would normally be considered the entire rhythm section. There were times in Jim’s career when he was called upon to be a magician…and this was one of them.  Of course, it is also a tribute to Guiffre and Brookmeyer  that they were able to complete the illusion of being a full ensemble when in fact it is only three musicians – two of which are horn players.  Their version of the Eddie Durham-Edgar Battle hit for the Basie Band Topsy burns!  This writer also saw Jim Hall and Bob Brookmeyer perform at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.  The two musicians filled the venue and you could hear a pin drop as the audience listened to their inspired collaboration.  Just a guitar and a trombone played by two masters was enough to hold the attention of a large audience and keep the enthralled.

Jim Hall graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music where he no doubt learned much about music theory and harmony, but his greatest learning came from his ability to listen and assimilate.  Jim Hall has been called a ‘minimalist’ and to a great extent this is true because he valued space and silence in his improvisations.  Jim taught us that ‘less is more.’  He was never guilty of overstatement.  He was a virtuoso of creativity not of muscle ability and complex ‘licks.’  When you listen to a Jim Hall solo you encounter form and substance.  Debussy and Ravel were minimalists too, so Jim was in good company. Unlike any other guitarist of his generation Jim Hall wove together musical ideas which blended chords and single notes so that the whole was greater and any part.  It makes no sense to try to pick apart a Hall solo because each solo is an integral whole – as tightly woven as it is also delicate and intricate.  He taught us the value of approaching a jazz solo as if one were composing…and indeed that is exactly what he was doing.  But Hall also listened to the musicians he was playing with – he interacted with them – he collaborated with them – there was a real interplay of ideas, emotion and rhythm.  These shared collaborations resulted in many pairings with just one other artist, and fortunately many of them are recorded for all of us to hear.  Here is a list of some of his jazz partners (probably incomplete):  Paul Desmond, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Evans, George Shearing, Michelle Petrucciani,  Red Mitchell, and Ron Carter.  His first recording with Ron Carter recorded in 1972 was another milestone in the history of jazz, as both musicians demonstrated that a very high level of improvisation could be achieved with just two instruments (and incidentally sell reasonably well as a jazz record – it has never gone out of print!) In addition to his many duet-pairings with fellow jazz artists, Jim Hall frequently performed with his trio which included Terry Clarke on drums and Don Thompson on bass.  The interaction between these three musicians is similar to the interplay of ideas that Bill Evans achieved in his famous jazz trio.  All of their recordings are masterful and are well worth acquiring.

Special mention has to be made of Jim Hall’s sound and use of the guitar.  Jim valued the guitar and saw it as complete in and of itself as an instrument of expression.  In an age that has grown increasingly dependent on electronics and gadgets, Jim taught us all that all you need is a good jazz guitar and amplifier.  No pedals, no distortion devices, no tricks with synthesizers and computers.  Music isn’t about these things.  It is about what music has always been about – harmony, rhythm, and melody.  Form and Substance.  Less is More.  An idea that is worth expressing is worth expressing well with good taste and just the right amount of technique.  Jim’s guitar sound was achieved by the use of a good tube amp, an acoustic guitar with a nicely wound pick-up, and a string-damper mechanism which allowed the guitar strings to sound full and richly beautiful.  In his later recordings, Jim favored the sound of the acoustic guitar even more, and he turned the amplifier down to allow the acoustic sound to shine through.

This commentary on the music of Jim Hall is not meant as a summary (that would be impossible) but as an invitation.  It is an invitation to the joy of listening to Jim Hall the artist.  Hall’s recordings span several decades and everything he ever recorded is rich and valuable.  He is a constant source of creativity, spontaneity and ideas.  Because he was frequently invited to join the rhythm section of other artists, his improvisations can be found on the albums of other musicians as well as under his own name.  Finding an unknown recording where he was a contributor is always a pleasure!  As has already been mentioned, the presence of Jim Hall in a group made everyone sound better.  So go out and have fun finding the gems that there to be discovered!  Whether you start with a recording under his name or someone else’s – you will be very pleased.  Whitney Balliett called jazz “the sound of surprise.”  Many surprises await you discovering the music of Jim Hall.  Whether you are re-visiting him again or just discovering Jim Hall for the first time you will have a wonderful time.  Listening to Jim Hall is like visiting a favorite art museum and discovering treasures in every room.  As you proceed through the galleries discovering new surprises, you will be drawn to revisit rooms you have left to enjoy previous well-loved masterpieces and see them  again, fresh and new.

Ellington and Gershwin

"Sir John Frederick William Herschel (British - Engraved Portrait of a Young Woman. - Google Art Project" by Sir John Frederick William Herschel (British, 1792 - 1871) (1792 - 1871) (British) (photographer, Details of artist on Google Art Project) - zAHsVDOg2SX2Hw at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Sir John Frederick William Herschel (British – Engraved Portrait of a Young Woman. – Google Art Project” by Sir John Frederick William Herschel (British, 1792 – 1871) (1792 – 1871) (British) (photographer, Details of artist on Google Art Project) – zAHsVDOg2SX2Hw at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


Today, in the concert hall, on recordings, and in various venues the compositions of both Ellington and Gershwin are frequently performed together.  Although, each composer has his own unique style and is instantly recognizable these works often serve to complement one another.  The reason for this complementarity is fairly obvious.  For one thing each composer imbued his works with art and craftsmanship.  A song by Gershwin or a work by Ellington displays ingenuity, intelligence, grace and style.  Their works are as popular on the concert stage as they are in small cabarets played by a jazz trio.  The opera singer Barbara Hendricks recorded a collection of Gershwin songs accompanied by the piano duo of Katia and Marielle Labeque for the Phillips Classic label.  The pianist Ellis Larkins played a full hour of musical medleys featuring the music of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center.  In 1994 the American Symphony Orchestra presented a concert at Avery Fisher Hall featuring the works of Jewish-American and African American composers.  The music included works by Morton Gould, Louis Gruenberg, Ulysses Kay, Florence Price, and of course George Gershwin and Duke Ellington.  The featured soloist was jazz pianist Marcus Roberts. Classically trained jazz pianist Don Shirley performed the music of Vernon Duke, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington at Carnegie Hall.  Both Mr. Shirley and Earl Wild recorded their own composed medleys of Porgy and Bess.  Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett have frequently included both the music of George Gershwin and Ellington in live performances.  In 1998 pianist Herbie Hancock recorded an album entitled “Gershwin’s World” which featured the music of both Gershwin and Ellington.   Many of the songs of George Gershwin have attained the status of “art songs” even though they began their life as creations for musical comedies and vaudeville set-pieces in George White “Scandals” or Zieldfeld “Follies.”  In a similar vein, Ellington popular songs such as “Sophisticated Lady”, “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” or “Don’t Get Around Anymore,” songs which were staples of the big band era, have now been taken to heart by singers who perform frequently on the opera stage.  Singers have recognized for years the elegant and sophisticated qualities of these songs, not to mention the extreme danger of attempting to sing “Sophisticated Lady” with its chromatic melody and unique key change in the bridge.  Recently, Kathleen Battle has included one of Duke Ellington’s earliest creations, “Creole Love Call,” with its wordless vocalese in her concert repertoire.  It was a vehicle for Adelaide Hall when she sang it with the Ellington band in 1927.  Ms. Battle’s superb rendition demonstrates that both Ellington and Gershwin were correct in their belief that a simple blues can have all the artistry of great musical beauty.  During the 2011/12 season of the Los Angeles Philharmonic famous jazz pianist Herbie Hancock performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in at the Disney Center for the Performing Arts under the direction of Gustavo Duhamel.  In all of these instances and in many more the enduring quality of the Gershwin and Ellington repertoire has inspired concert artists as well as jazz artists to wish to include both of their compositions in a single performance.  George Gershwin and Duke Ellington both knew in their lifetime what many of us are discovering now and today – which is that they were on complementary trajectories.