By Todd Stoll

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington
Born April 29, 1899, in Washington, D.C.
Died May 24, 1974, in New York, NY

By the time Duke Ellington was 75 years old, he was perhaps the most lauded composer of not only the 20th century, but possibly of any century. He had been presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, celebrated a birthday at the White House, received the Legion of Honor from France, honored with postage stamps in four countries, and had heard himself called “America’s greatest composer.” The duality of his career as a band leader and composer is perhaps the singular point that pushed him to a level of excellence we may never see in our arts again. He composed at least 2,000 works and did so while performing nearly 20,000 times in the United States, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia—an average of 400 times each year for the span of his 50-year career. 

He composed perhaps the most diverse body of work in history—dance pieces, concertos, suites, movie soundtracks, music to accompany Shakespeare’s themes, television show themes, ballets, and Broadway shows. Ellington wrote music for a queen, for lightning bugs, and for paintings by Degas. He composed serious extended symphonies, pieces for romantic evenings under Paris skies, and sacred music for cathedrals. If there was a human experience, Duke Ellington set it to rhythm and tune. It is no surprise, then, that an evening of his music would be presented in one of America’s most venerable concert halls. Ellington himself appeared annually at Carnegie Hall from 1943 to 1948 and more than 20 times over a 40-year period. This is familiar and expected territory for his music. 

For most of his career, Ellington worked within the framework of his jazz orchestra, an ensemble of 15 comprising five saxophones, four trumpets, three trombones, and a rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums. The question then becomes, how does one transfer this music for 15 to an 80- to 90-piece orchestra? How does one take soaring saxophones, swinging drums, talking brass, and mercurial improvisations, re-creating it with the much larger and ponderous symphonic ensemble? Tonight’s program will more than aptly answer these questions.


Black, Brown, and Beige Suite
Composed in 1943
Premiered on January 23, 1943 at Carnegie Hall in New York City by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra
Arranged for orchestra by Maurice Peress
Arrangement premiered on July 5, 1970 at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL, by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maurice Peress
Performance Time: Approximately 20 minutes

Black, Brown, and Beige Suite (1943) was written for Ellington’s first concert at Carnegie Hall in 1943 as “a parallel to the history of the Negro in America.” It was his most ambitious effort—three sections with nine total movements and a length of nearly an hour. 

It has come to be seen as an innovative political and social statement and one of the first attempts to move African-American arts from the popular into the artistic realm. While critical response was at best mixed, Ellington never revisited the entire work again, with the exception of a 1958 critically-acclaimed recording with legendary gospel vocalist Mahalia Jackson, re-worked and shortened. Another recording surfaced in the late 1980s, released from private recordings Ellington made between 1956–71. Wynton Marsalis and Blue Engine Records released a new complete recording from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in March of 2020. 

The suite performed tonight is an edition by famed conductor Maurice Peress, premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on July 5, 1970, at their summer home in Ravinia. Peress worked with Ellington’s assistance and approval throughout the entire process, which continued even after the recording. This shortened version contains material from the first section, “Black.” It is cast in three movements without pause, featuring the soaring melodies and swinging rhythms from the original. 


Satin Doll
Composed in 1953
Arranged for orchestra by Chuck Israels
Performance Time: Approximately 3 minutes

“Satin Doll” (1953) was initially recorded as an instrumental at Ellington’s first session for Capital Records in 1953; the lyrics were added by Johnny Mercer and Billy Strayhorn in 1958. It was one of Ellington’s final pop hits and was covered by nearly every popular singer for the next 25 years.

Many of Ellington’s compositions started as purely instrumental music and later became popular vocal hits. The 1940s tune “Concerto for Cootie” became “Do Nothing ’til You Hear from Me” and the ubiquitous “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” began as a saxophone feature for Johnny Hodges. 

This evening’s version is a standout arranged by the extremely gifted composer and arranger Chuck Israels. Mr. Israels is one of the truly great artists of his time, having played bass with jazz legends Billie Holiday and Bill Evans. His lush, swinging arrangement will be brought to life by Catherine Russell, one of our premier jazz vocalists. Ms. Russell, the daughter of renowned musicians Luis Russell (music director for Louis Armstrong) and Carline Ray (Sweethearts of Rhythm) has a distinguished career that spans genres and the generations. She has received Grammy nominations for her most recent recordings, Harlem on my Mind (2016) and Alone Together (2019). 

by Johnny Mercer and Billy Strayhorn

Cigarette holder, which wigs me
Over her shoulder, she digs me
Out cattin’ that Satin Doll.

Baby shall we go out skippin’?
Carfeul amigo, you’re flippin’
Speaks Latin, that Satin Doll.

She’s nobody’s fool, so I’m playing it cool as can be.
I’ll give it a whirl, but I ain’t for no girl catching me…

Telephone numbers, well you know
Doing my rhumbas with you know
And that ‘n’ my Satin Doll.

She’s nobody’s fool, so I’m playing it cool as can be.
I’ll give it a whirl, but I ain’t for no girl catching me…

Telephone numbers, well you know
Doing my rhumbas with you know
And that ‘n’ my Satin Doll.
And that ‘n’ my Satin Doll.


Composed in 1951
Premiered on January 21, 1951 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra
Arranged for orchestra by Luther Henderson & Maurice Peress
Arrangement premiered in 1955 at Carnegie Hall in New York City
Performance Time: Approximately 18 minutes.

Harlem (or A Tone Parallel to Harlem) (1951) is recognized as one of Ellington’s greatest works. Commissioned by conductor Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony, the work was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City on January 21, 1951, for an NAACP benefit. Originally known as the Portrait of New York Suite (a copy of the score was personally given to President Harry S. Truman), it was originally recorded as a big-band-only work. It was orchestrated for full orchestra by Juilliard-trained Harlem resident Luther Henderson; this larger version was premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1955 and later recorded (1963) with the Paris Symphony Orchestra. Tonight’s version was re-orchestrated by conductor Maurice Peress who worked very closely with Ellington in the final years of his life.

As Ellington described it, “We would now like to take you on a tour of this place called Harlem… It is Sunday morning. We a strolling from 110th Street up Seventh Avenue, heading north through the Spanish and West Indian neighborhood towards the 125th Street business area… You may hear a parade go by, or a funeral, or you may recognize the passage of those who are making Civil Rights demands. We find ourselves, along about halfway through this piece, in front of a church on Easter Sunday morning, witnessing an Easter parade, a little sadness, a little gladness, a dazzling satin doll, but moving on progressively.”

The opening trumpet solo intones the word “Harlem” with the interval of the falling minor third and serves as a leitmotif for the entire piece. If you listen carefully, you may hear the interval of the third used throughout, both in its original descending form, but also ascending, as melody, background and harmony. Ellington also combines thematic material within the concept of New Orleans-style melody in a middle voice with counterpoint above and below, as in the traditional New Orleans frontline of clarinet-trumpet-trombone. 


Sophisticated Lady
Composed in 1933
Arranged for orchestra by Morton Gould
Performance Time: Approximately 4 minutes

“Sophisticated Lady” (1933) is one of Ellington’s best-known melodies and is heard here in Morton Gould’s 1946 version for string orchestra, harp, and celeste. A child prodigy, Gould’s career spanned nearly seven decades, and he received multiple awards including a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize. This arrangement for lush strings and interjections from celeste, features the evocative melody passed from high strings to low and back creating what Ellington himself called a “blue mood piece.”


New World A-Comin’
Composed in 1943
Premiered December 11, 1943 at Carnegie Hall in New York City by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra
Arranged for orchestra by Maurice Peress
Arrangement premiered June 1988 at Carnegie Hall in New York City by the American Composer’s Orchestra conducted by Maurice Peress with soloist Sir Roland Hanna
Solos arranged by Marcus Robert, World Premiere
Performance Time: Approximately 14 minutes

New World A-Comin’ (1943) is often referred to as Ellington’s piano concerto and a companion to Gershwin’s ubiquitous Rhapsody in Blue, having being programmed and recorded several times in this configuration. The title was inspired by Vincent “Roi” Ottley’s best-selling book New World a-Coming: Inside Black America, in which he envisioned improved conditions for Black people in postwar America. “…a new world is a-coming with the sweep and fury of the Resurrection,” Ottley wrote. The piece was premiered at Ellington’s Second Carnegie Hall concert in December 1943. Ellington wrote, “I visualized this new world as a place in the distant future, where there would be no war, no greed, no categorization, no non-believers, where love was un-conditional, and no pronoun was good enough for God.”

The orchestral version, while performed often and to much acclaim, was not recorded until 1970 with the Cincinnati Symphony under the baton of Pops conductor Erich Kunzel, with Ellington at the piano.

Tonight’s performance is the world premiere of a new arrangement by renowned pianist Marcus Roberts, who has spent decades studying the works of Ellington and is likely the best candidate to re-interpret these works.


Three Black Kings
Composed in 1974
Completed by Mercer Ellington, arranged for orchestra by Luther Henderson
Premiered in 1976 at Artpark Theater in Buffalo, NY
Solos arranged by Marcus Roberts, World Premiere
Performance Time: Approximately 18 minutes

Three Black Kings (1974) was Duke Ellington’s final composition. While hospitalized at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital during the spring of 1974, he worked on this nearly 20-minute piece. He died before it was completed. Following his tradition of writing sweeping musical narratives, Three Black Kings, according to Ellington’s son Mercer, was written as a musical eulogy to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The work was finished by Mercer and orchestrated by Luther Henderson for a tribute concert in 1976. It became part of the regular repertoire of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company for their 1976–77 season. Tonight’s arrangement was created by Marcus Roberts, famed pianist, composer, and Ellington scholar. 

The first section, Ellington’s tonal version of “primitive,” represents Balthazar, the Black king of the Magi. Repetitive rhythmic figures reminiscent of his previous work, Bonga from Afro Bossa. The second section, representing King Solomon, has overtones of film music. Performed at a slower tempo, it is filled with sweeping string passages and harp with an evocative and sultry melody. There are moments that are reminiscent of George Gershwin’s American in Paris. The melody is passed, through various voices, one of Ellington’s favorite devices. 

The final part, written for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a full-on gospel romp in 3/4, a meter Ellington used infrequently. The harmonic language here was previously used in his “Portrait of Mahalia Jackson” from the New Orleans Suite. The memorable melody, originally conceived for the soprano saxophone, is a tribute to the lyric heart of the Ellington Orchestra, Johnny Hodges. It is fitting that his last composition feature such a finale. The New York Times noted at the premiere “…with its crescendo of gospel rhythms and its expressionist symbols of marches and martyrdom… this moves the spectator.”


Night Creature for Jazz Band and Orchestra
Composed in 1955
Premiered on March 16, 1955 at Carnegie Hall in New York City by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra and the Symphony of the Air conducted by Duke Ellington
Arranged for orchestra by Luther Henderson, edited by Gunther Schuller
Performance Time: Approximately 17 minutes

Night Creature (1955) was commissioned for a concert at Carnegie Hall by Don Gillis and the Symphony of the Air (formerly the NBC Symphony under the baton of Arturo Toscanini) and originally recorded in 1963. In 1975, this piece, choreographed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, became a popular part of their repertoire. Originally orchestrated by Luther Henderson, and heard here in an edition by Gunther Schuller, the piece was conceived as a kind of “concerto grosso” in three movements with the jazz band serving as the soloist in collective form. 

The first movement, “Blind Bug,” contrasts various tempos with a repeating melody developed through the jazz band and symphony sections. The second movement, “Stalking Monster,” is perhaps the most evocative. With a minor key triadic theme that begins with piano and repeats, motifs are developed only to return in various forms, especially in call-and-response with jazz soloists later in the movement. The third movement, “Dazzling Creature,” starts with hints of exotica according to Ellington, bringing to mind his own compositions such as Caravan and Flamingo, and Ravel’s Bolero. Switching to an up-tempo swing feel in this movement, the musical themes are developed to a stomping climax, with a tutti line delivered by the entire assemblage. 

Of his work, Ellington said, “The first movement is about a blind bug who comes out every night to find that because he is king of the night creatures, he must dance. The reason he is king, of course, is that being blind he lives in night all day, and when night really comes he sees as well as anyone else, but with the difference that he is accustomed to not seeing. The second movement is concerned with that imaginary monster we all fear we shall have to meet some midnight, but when we meet him I’m sure we shall find that he too does the boogie-woogie.

“Night creatures, unlike stars, do not come out at night—they come on, each thinking that before the night is out he or she will be the star. They are the restless cool whose exotic or erotic animations, no matter how cool, beg for recognition, mainly from the queen, that dazzling woman who reigns over all night creatures … As they stomp off the handclapping, everybody scrambles to be in place, wailing and winging into the most overindulged form of up-and-outness.”

Written for


Duke Ellington + Marcus Roberts Trio