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At Capitol Center, a jazzy tribute to Duke Ellington

  • Duke Ellington, who will celebrate his 70th birthday, holds a news conference at the New York Hilton on April 24, 1969. Ellington has been invited to celebrate his birthday at the White House. (AP Photo/John Duricka)

    Duke Ellington, who will celebrate his 70th birthday, holds a news conference at the New York Hilton on April 24, 1969. Ellington has been invited to celebrate his birthday at the White House. (AP Photo/John Duricka)

  • Orchester leader Duke Ellington is shown in this 1941 photo.  (AP Photo)

    Orchester leader Duke Ellington is shown in this 1941 photo. (AP Photo)

  • Duke Ellington, who will celebrate his 70th birthday, holds a news conference at the New York Hilton on April 24, 1969. Ellington has been invited to celebrate his birthday at the White House. (AP Photo/John Duricka)
  • Orchester leader Duke Ellington is shown in this 1941 photo.  (AP Photo)

Duke Ellington’s “A” Train” is pulling into Concord this weekend as the Capitol Center stage is set for a doubleheader of world-class jazz. Two concerts running back-to-back are designed to entertain and enlighten young and old.

Starting Sunday, the Capitol Center Jazz Orchestra kicks off its fourth season of its popular “Moment in Time” series, with A Tribute to Duke Ellington featuring the Metta Quintet. Then on Monday, the Metta Quintet will host an educational program, Stolen Moments: The First 100 Years of Jazz, which introduces young audiences to jazz music’s rich history. Hundreds of schoolchildren from across the state will attend.

Sunday’s Duke Ellington tribute is the first show this year from the Capitol Center Jazz Orchestra. In recent years the orchestra has paid tribute to such jazz greats as Louis Armstrong, Stan Kenton, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman and the Rat Pack. While the group’s players are experienced, in tackling Duke Ellington they have their work cut out for them.

Ellington was one of the most important people in the history of American music.

“Its exciting to pay tribute to one of America’s greatest composers,” said orchestra director Clayton Poole. “The breadth of Ellington’s output is just incredible.”

Ellington’s legacy is staggering. He wrote more than 8,000 original compositions for stage, screen and television, sold millions of recordings and toured the world extensively with his big band for more than 50 years. Today, dozens of his songs have become standards in the American music repertoire: “Satin Doll,” “It’ Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing,” and “Take the ‘A’ Train,” to name only a few.

Historically Ellington was always in the right place at the right time. He grew up in Washington, D.C., at the turn of the century. A teacher appropriately named Mrs. Clinkscales gave the young Ellington piano lessons. His mother stressed the importance of always displaying proper manners, a trait the Ellington carried with him his whole life.

As the roaring ’20s kicked up its heels, Ellington assembled a small group of jazzers called The Washingtonians, which was popular at society balls and galas. In the early 1920s, the band moved to New York and settled in Harlem. Here, Ellington had his finger on the pulse of the developing jazz scene and became a pivotal figure Harlem Renaissance movement. Shortly after the move the band began a series of long-term engagements at prestigious New York nightclubs. It was a four-year stint at the famous Cotton Club that launched Ellington’s career.

With the Cotton Club a stable base from which to work, Ellington assembled a group of handpicked musicians to perform his music. Many of these musicians would stay with him for decades, spending much of their lives working exclusively for Ellington. Nightly live radio broadcasts from the Cotton Club brought Ellington’s music a national audience and expanded his recognition, enabling him to tour the country to sold-out venues.

Throughout the early 1940s, the Ellington band shone by keeping America’s morale high during World War II. Now with creative genius Billy Strayhorn working alongside him as a composer and collaborator, Ellington released a string of “three-minute masterpieces” that kept Americans on their feet dancing. “Take the “A” Train” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “Cotton Tail” were all released during the height of the swing era. In the 1940s, Duke Ellington gave America its own musical voice: one that expressed our rich culture and endless optimism.

Changing times

By the 1950s, the swing era had collapsed and a new music was on every radio in the country: rock ’n’ roll. The large jazz groups of the 1940s had mostly gone out of business, with clubs preferring smaller and less-expensive bebop groups to fill their stages. Ellington’s band was one of a few to survive. Ellington pressed on with a vigorous schedule of touring. The band hit the road for countless one-night performances and jazz festivals. During this time, Ellington and Strayhorn began focusing on writing more large-scale pieces designed to be performed in a formal concert setting. The “three-minute masterpieces” were gradually replaced by extended concert pieces such as Harlem, The Sacred Concerts, The Queens Suite, The Far East Suite and his ever-popular The Nutcracker.

Through these formal concerts, Ellington became the first American to reach an artistic level of accomplishment only equaled by the greatest European composers.

“For the concert I’ve selected pieces that span the length of his long, half-century career from the Cotton Club days to his later concerts.” Poole said. “We’ve included more familiar pieces such as ‘Satin Doll’ and ‘Take the “A” Train’ along with rarities, too.”

One of the more obscure selections in the show, “Blues in Blueprint,” features the unusual duet of bass and bass clarinet, is taken from his 1959 album Blues in Orbit. “Almost Cried,” another relatively unknown selection, was part of Ellington’s Anatomy of a Murder film score.

At Sunday’s Ellington concert, the jazz orchestra will share the stage with the Metta Quintet. Composed of some of New York’s brightest emerging jazz artists, the group is dedicated to blazing new artistic territory while maintaining a commitment to fostering new audiences and educating young people about American jazz.

Then on Monday, the Metta Quintet will present its educational program Stolen Moments: the First 100 Years of Jazz for kids at the Capitol Center. Stolen Moments introduces audiences to jazz music’s rich history and to the names, faces and music of some of its many masters.

Metta Quintet founder and drummer Hans Schuman established the group in 1994.

“After moving to New York, I became increasingly concerned about the lack of access to jazz that young people had,” he said in a recent interview. “I felt it was a travesty that young people had no access to their own cultural heritage.”

In response, Schuman founded JAZZ REACH, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion, performance and teaching of jazz music to young people. “The way we carry out our mission is through live jazz educational programming integrating music, with live narration and multi-media video projections.”

(“A Moment in Time,” A Tribute to Duke Ellington featuring the Metta Quintet is Sunday at 4 p.m. “Stolen Moments: The First 100 Years of Jazz” is on Monday at 10 a.m. Tickets to both concerts are available online at ccanh.com, in person at the box office or over the phone at 225-1111.)

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