Music that doesn't suck, No. 8: Harlem
When Copland, Bernstein, Gershwin, et al. show up on concert programs, we conductors undoubtedly mention how those guys were able to fuse their classical, Western European-style training with the jazz, dance, popular, and folk influences of their time. Edward Kennedy Ellington (aka, “Duke”) came from the other direction -- he was able to bring his jazz and dance band training into the symphonic orchestra hall, innovating a genre known as “orchestral jazz.” Orchestral jazz married jazz “language” with the size and scope of a symphony orchestra, and it sounded like something wholly different than anything that had come before it. We’re talking NYC in the 1920s, by the way….
Duke Ellington’s Harlem was commissioned in 1950 and was meant to be part of a larger, New York City-inspired suite, which was never fully realized. (Fun fact: the suite, and thus Harlem, was commissioned by Arturo Toscanini, lest you think the classical and jazz crowds of the time didn’t commingle! Sadly, Toscanini himself never conducted the piece.) When the work appears on concert programs and/or recordings, it goes by one of two names: “A Tone Parallel to Harlem (“Harlem Suite”), or simply, “Harlem.” The work also exists in multiple versions. Ellington’s original is for a large jazz orchestra; but there are at least two other orchestrations -- by Luther Henderson and Maurice Peress, respectively -- for full symphony orchestra. All versions begin the same way, with a solo trumpet intoning the word, “Har-lem.”
Ellington himself described the piece in his memoirs…
“We would now like to take you on a tour of this place called Harlem... It is Sunday morning. We are strolling from 110th Street up Seventh Avenue, heading north through the Spanish and West Indian neighborhood 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.”
I’ve included two versions below: Ellington’s original, with the man himself leading his orchestra; and the City of Birmingham Symphony led by Sir Simon Rattle. The CBSO is performing the Peress orchestration of the piece. Enjoy!