Earshot's annual performance of Duke Ellington's sacred music is unique to Seattle. It's a magnum opus involving more than 50 performers on stage, and it was instrumental in the formation of the now-accomplished Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra.

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In 1965, the Pulitzer Prize’s three-member music jury voted unanimously to award Duke Ellington a special citation for his prodigious contributions to American music, an award unceremoniously rejected by the Pulitzer’s 14-member advisory board.

The 66-year-old Ellington handled the snub and resulting controversy with customary aplomb. “Fate is being kind to me,” the Maestro said. “Fate doesn’t want me to be famous too young.”

In truth, Ellington had his eye on loftier concerns. On Sept. 16 of that year, the Duke Ellington Orchestra premiered “A Concert of Sacred Music” at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, the first of three Sacred Music programs that he considered his most important work.

These days there’s little argument about Ellington’s status as a singularly creative force in 20th-century music, but compared to his beloved standards and ambitious longer suites with Billy Strayhorn, his Sacred Music is rarely performed.

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In Seattle, however, the Sacred Music canon is woven firmly into the city’s cultural scene, a tradition that enters its third decade today when Earshot Jazz presents the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra at Town Hall with the Northwest Chamber Choir, tap dancer Alex Dugdale, gospel singer Nichol Veneé Eskridge and the suave jazz and blues crooner Everett Greene (who tours with the Basie Orchestra).

“It’s a magnum opus with some 50 people on the stage,” says Earshot director John Gilbreath, who notes that the production’s scale makes it an unlikely choice for an annual undertaking.

“It’s not a commercial endeavor, but you do it because it nourishes the soul. The music is so reverent and hip at the same time.”

Considering that there’s no corresponding series in San Francisco, New York City or London (where the music was first presented), Seattle isn’t an obvious location for the nation’s longest running production of Ellington’s Sacred Music.

Launched in 1989 by Lara Morrison under the auspices of the Interfaith Council of Seattle, the event immediately attracted an all-star roster of Seattle jazz talent. Taken over by Earshot in 1993, the Sacred Music performances ended up providing much of the impetus for founding the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra.

“In some ways this is how we got our start,” says saxophonist and University of Washington professor Michael Brockman, who co-leads the 17-piece SRJO with drummer Clarence Acox.

Now months away from finishing his doctoral dissertation on Ellington’s orchestral techniques, Brockman elevated the quality of the concerts early on when he spearheaded the effort to create Sacred Music transcriptions (Earshot later purchased the scores from Ellington’s estate).

“Ellington’s most popular and successful pieces are all under five minutes,” Brockman says. “The appreciation of the longer pieces takes deeper digging from the listener, which is no different from an extended piece of music by Beethoven or any other great composer.”

Andrew Gilbert: jazzscribe@aol.com

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