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Five acclaimed musicians from the jazz world and beyond--Ran Blake, Arni Cheatham, John Funkhouser, John Harbison and Herb Pomeroy--will appear at MIT on Friday, April 30 as part of a concert by the MIT Wind Ensemble commemorating the 30th anniversary of the death of Duke Ellington.
All five have at least one thing in common: a long-standing relationship with Ellington's music. They will share the stage as guest performers in the world premiere of "Beyond," an extended composition commissioned from MIT lecturer Mark Harvey, a longtime Ellington scholar and performer.
As part of "Beyond," the soloists will first perform, in a traditional manner, some of the Ellington themes that Harvey uses in his piece. "The listeners will then be better prepared to hear how Harvey integrates, explores and expands the original Ellington material," said Wind Ensemble conductor Fred Harris.
Harbison, an Institute Professor and composer, and jazz icon Pomeroy, founder of the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble who retired in 1985, will perform together for the first time as part of this prelude to "Beyond."
Pomeroy performed with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and taught an Ellington composition class at Berklee College of music for nearly 40 years. Jazz avant garde pianist Ran Blake, saxophonist Arni Cheatham, and bassist and pianist John Funkhouser are all longtime performers of Ellington's music; and John Harbison has a long history of using jazz references in his compositions and piano-playing.
The title of the piece, said Harvey, is a reference to "Ellington's personal artistic, social and spiritual creed, which was to move 'beyond category,' as he often said." Harvey noted that there's a "second sense of the term 'beyond' underlying the music itself," calling his composition a "philosophical program beginning with Ellington's death--when he went 'beyond' this earthly realm--and tracing various responses to his legacy."
Planning this event was a happy challenge for Wind Ensemble conductor Fred Harris. "For the last 10 years I've been interested in exposing students that play in a symphonic ensemble to Ellington's music in a meaningful way," he said. Most of Ellington's compositions, he acknowledged, are for jazz ensemble.
"This unique project gives its participants exposure to not only Ellington's own original music, but also provides a creative vehicle--a new composition--by which to experience the possibilities that Ellington's musical language offers," Harris said.
Harvey has integrated much of what he's learned about Ellington into his own teaching and performing, and he has 17 transcriptions of the composer's works for performance by his professional jazz orchestra Aardvark.
"The opportunity to create a piece for wind ensemble to commemorate Duke Ellington is yet another way for me to repay the enormous debt of inspiration and example I owe this acknowledged genius of modern music," said Harvey.
The 8 p.m. concert in Kresge Auditorium will also feature Harvey's arrangement for wind ensemble of Ellington's seminal piece, "Caravan," with Harvey as trumpet soloist, as well as music by Grainger and canons from Bach's "Art of Fugue." Admission is $5 at the door. The concert will be preceded by a lecture demonstration by Harvey and Pomeroy at 7:15 p.m.
On Thursday, April 29, Harvey will share his personal perspective in creating "Beyond" at a special lecture/demonstration at 7 p.m. in Killian Hall. (Harvey was an usher at Ellington's funeral service in 1974 and co-produced a 1988 performance of the Ellington Sacred Concert at Boston Symphony Hall by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, conducted by Ellington's son, Mercer.) Pianist Ran Blake also will perform a tribute.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 28, 2004.