Phoenix Chorale celebrates the 50-year anniversary of Duke Ellington’s legendary Phoenix concerts.

Duke of Phoenix

Written by Leah LeMoine Category: History Issue: November 2016
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For Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Downtown Phoenix, 1966 was a tumultuous year. The Episcopal church was beginning to ordain women. The church’s dialogue about homosexuality was heating up. On top of that, “we were changing our prayer book,” says Ray Dugan, canon pastor of the cathedral at the time.

It was into that practical and metaphysical milieu that jazz giant Duke Ellington and his big band rode into Phoenix for the first time that November, shuttling in new controversy to the cathedral with two performances of “A Concert of Sacred Music by Duke Ellington.”

“There were people that objected to having jazz in the cathedral,” Dugan says of the November concerts. “There were people that objected to having [tap dancer] Bunny Briggs dancing before the Lord. I’ve heard rumors that there was a problem of race. I think those were pretty much unfounded – maybe two or three members of the cathedral that didn’t like to see blacks.”

To assuage the congregation’s concerns, Ellington and the dean of Trinity Cathedral, the Very Reverend Elmer B. Usher, included introductions in the concert program. “When a man feels that that which he enjoys in this life is only because of the grace of God, he rejoices, he sings, and sometimes dances,” Ellington wrote. Usher continued, “[Ellington] feels that each is to offer his best to God and if one’s best is piano playing or dancing, then offer it to Him in gratitude. Over-emphasis on the sacral is a distortion of God’s will for the world.”

Not everyone was concerned about the religious ramifications. “We were out on the road with the band just trying to survive. I needed a job, so there you go,” says John Lamb, who was a 32-year-old double bassist in his third year of touring with Ellington. “All music is spiritual to me because I’m expressing something that’s in me, that’s coming through me, and it’s going to someone else to help someone feel better.”

Dugan, who sang in the Trinity choir that accompanied Ellington’s band, felt uplifted by the performances. “I was a music lover, an Ellington lover, and I felt very much at home,” he says. “Personally, it was one of the highlights of my life.”

Now 81, Dugan will get a chance to relive the magic this November 12 and 13, when the Phoenix Chorale and Mesa Community College Performing Arts Center’s Jazz Ensemble re-create the historic concerts. What would Ellington, who died in 1974, think of the anniversary performances?

“I wonder what he would say if he knew he was known as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century,” Lamb deadpans.

For more information about the performances and to purchase tickets, visit phoenixchorale.org.

– Leah LeMoine