Duke Ellington’s birthday is this weekend, and, to celebrate, the Coastal Jazz Association (CJA) is presenting their annual Duke Ellington Tribute Concert on April 28 in the ballroom at the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa.
Featuring the 17-piece Savannah Jazz Orchestra — and a few exciting special guests — the grand concert is always one of the most popular events by the CJA, and for good reason.
Although he hopes it is because people enjoy their spectacular band, Randall Reese, co-director of the Savannah Jazz Orchestra, acknowledges that the music and legacy of Duke Ellington is a major draw for the always sold-out audience.
“The Ellington repertoire is so pervasive,” Reese said. “We go beyond what he just played because he was covered by so many people, so we’ll do arrangements from other bands.”
Reese lays out several points about what makes Ellington’s legacy and influence so enduring.
“One was the pure amount of good music he was responsible for, and when I say responsible, some of it he composed, some of it people in his band composed,” Reese explained.
Ellington also had many great players and distinctive jazz voices come through his band over the course of his long career.
“He was a big influence that way,” Reese said. “His group was a nexus for a lot of different kinds of talent. He had a lot of distinctive soloists — people who can play a few notes and you can tell who it is.”
Ellington not only changed how jazz is performed and perceived, but also traveled the world as an ambassador for the art form.
“He helped bring jazz from just dance music to an American art form of music,” Reese said. “He brought a lot of American jazz music to the rest of the world.”
Joining the Savannah Jazz Orchestra will be vibraphonist Jalen Baker. Baker distinguished himself at Columbia College Chicago where he was named outstanding soloist at the Notre Dame and Elmhurst Jazz Festivals.
“Every year we bring in a regional guest soloist to be featured with the band,” Reese explained. “Of course, it’s nice to hear them, but it’s also fun for us to work with them in a number of different kinds of situations. It recharges our batteries to play with different musicians every year.”
Returning to join the band is premier vocalist Priscilla Albergottie-Williams. Williams has had many showcase performances across Germany and in the United States and has even performed for Fergi, the Duchess of Wales. “Every year, near the end, we feature Priscilla with a very famous tune from one of Ellington’s Sacred Concerts, special concerts he would put together for a religious service, and it’s a tune called ‘Come Sunday,’” Reese said. “That’s always one of the high points of the concert.”
Attendees of the concert will get to hear announcements for the 38th annual Savannah Jazz Festival, so in a way, this tribute show is a preview for the great music the CJA will continue bringing Savannah in September.