Documenting Jessye Norman’s “Sacred Ellington” Concerts

The following is a guest post from Jessica Grimmer, Ph.D., an MLIS student at the University of Maryland completing her field study at the Library of Congress as a member of a team processing the Jessye Norman Papers

Black and white informal portrait of Ellington in front of the piano. Hands folded, eyes looking up.

Unidentified photographer. Duke Ellington, undated. Iconography file, Music Division.

In her 2014 memoir, Stand Up Straight and Sing, American opera star Jessye Norman recounts a chance sighting of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington in 1968, outside New York City’s Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. In later reflection, Norman wondered if the jazz legend was in rehearsals for his Second Sacred Concert, which premiered at the cathedral in September of that year. Ellington’s three Sacred Concerts, from 1965, 1968, and 1973, marked a departure of sorts from the secular jazz of his heyday. Still, although this music uses sacred lyrics, these works retain the stylistic hallmarks and showmanship of his salon origins.

If jazz icon Ellington could make such an impression in the genre of sacred music, then perhaps it is not surprising to find that Jessye Norman—famed prima donna of international opera and recital stages—performed concerts of Ellington’s sacred output. As the singer herself noted, she had, from her earliest recital days, programmed African American spirituals to conclude her concerts of mostly European songs of the romantic and early modern eras.

The Jessye Norman Papers, donated by the singer in 2019 shortly before her passing, includes documents regarding Norman’s efforts to present these concerts, a feat she accomplished in six venues. The collection also notably includes the printed music, thick with handwritten annotations, that Norman used to perform these works. Norman’s longtime collaborator, Bruce Saylor, augmented Ellington’s original orchestrations, adding string parts to the original jazz band, an alteration that would appear to fit Norman’s more classically minded concerts and venues.

Handwritten score with pencil and blue ink annotations.

Duke Ellington, composer, Bruce Saylor, arranger. Annotated opening sequence for Sacred Ellington, undated. Jessye Norman Papers, Music Division.

In addition to documenting the instrumental additions, the printed music also illustrates Norman’s intention to provide the audience with a full picture of Ellington’s sacred material. Ellington’s three sacred concerts demonstrated a progression from a heavy reliance on pre-existing material, to new experimentation, to a reportedly-somber final concert. Norman’s set list, nearly twice the length of any one of Ellington’s, draws equally from all three, and in no particular order.

Set list for Sacred Ellington by Jessye Norman, undated. Jessye Norman Papers, Music Division.

Just as Ellington continued to labor over the Sacred Concerts for nearly a decade, Norman continued to perform this material for an extended period of time. Norman premiered this program abroad, beginning with a 1999 concert in London, before continuing on to dates in Paris, Amsterdam, and smaller cities in France and Germany the following year. The collection includes her remarks to the audience, handwritten in French, which state that she believed one could find the very soul of Duke Ellington in this music.

Full-length black and white studio portrait of Norman with hair wrap and long sleeved satin dress.

Ruth Walz, photographer. Jessye Norman in Erwartung, Salzburg Festpiele,1995. Jessye Norman Papers, Music Division.

It would be another eight years before Norman brought her Sacred Ellington concert to the United States. Norman produced this specific concert as part of the 2009 Honor! festival sponsored by Carnegie Hall. The series offered Norman an opportunity to celebrate the African American cultural legacy she had found lacking in her own musical education. This production of Sacred Ellington utilized both jazz band and quartet, string quartet and gospel choir, as well as solo dancers to augment the music. The concert took place in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, the same venue Norman saw Ellington entering four decades earlier. It represented a true hybridity of musical styles: a classical singer performing the sacred works of a legendary jazz musician, demonstrating their shared ability to transcend genre.

The Jessye Norman Papers will allow patrons access into Norman’s method of performing classical, traditional, and jazz works on the international stage, and provide insight on her adaptation of works to fit her unique voice. Certainly, Norman’s presentation of the Sacred Ellington concerts exemplify her ability to perform spectacularly across genres, a major point of her widespread popularity and enduring legacy.

One Comment

  1. Maureen Biesinger
    September 25, 2021 at 9:37 am

    Great article, I didn’t know she sang any of Ellington’s music!

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