When it came to choosing a composer to create a musical work to mark the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Emancipation, Duke Ellington was first on the list. Ellington, by this point 40 years into his career, was the embodiment of what could be achieved by a black man in the USA. Recognised the world over for the quality of his work and the grace and dignity with which he held himself, he had dined with royalty and won prestigious international awards.
Ellington was born in Washington toward the end of the 19th century and built his career as the leader of a great orchestra. His facility in managing the great players he employed, and his ability to write music that suited their styles made him the pre-eminent bandleader. Hits came his way, but when he began to develop long-form works, he rose to another level.
He chose to celebrate a century of black emancipation with a musical review titled “My People”, based around his earlier suite ‘Black, Brown And Beige’. Taking in gospel, blues and jazz, the work was performed by the main members of his Orchestra, with vocalists Joya Sherill, Jimmy McPhail and others. It also featured an oration by Ellington himself.
After the show finished its run, it may well have been lost to history if producer Bob Thiele hadn’t decided to get involved. He reassembled the cast and recorded the album at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey, then issued it on his Contact label. An understated gem in the Ellington catalogue, we are reissuing it for the first time using the original album artwork.
By Dean Rudland