Duke Ellington's music defied easy categorization. His compositions were concerned with rhythm, melody, timbre, and harmony, and he refused to describe his music as simply "jazz" — a word he considered limiting — instead referring to it as "American music." David Schiff, a music professor at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, wrote in his book The Ellington Century that "no single oeuvre represents the full cross-categorical range of mid-20th century music more than the vast repertory ... of the Duke Ellington Orchestra."
In many ways, San Francisco-based composer, arranger, bandleader, and bassist Marcus Shelby could be considered Ellington's 21st-century counterpart. Shelby started his own orchestra in 1999, in part, to perform Ellington's music, as well as his own compositions. And like Ellington, Shelby doesn't subscribe to the label "jazz" — even though his sixteen-piece ensemble is called the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra. "I play blues and swing," he said. "I grew up playing open string bass, all in the key of G. But I'm open to all styles: I find the power and potential of musical inflection, of call-and-response. I lose the labels."
In honor of Ellington's birthday and the fifteenth anniversary of Shelby's orchestra, Shelby will present "The Legacy of Duke Ellington: 50 Years of Swing!" at Zellerbach Hall on May 2. The first half of the show will pay tribute to Ellington's fifty-year career with selections such as "Creole Love Call" and "Black Beauty." The second set will consist of Such Sweet Thunder, a twelve-part musical suite written by Ellington and his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn and inspired by the work of William Shakespeare. The performance will also incorporate actors from the California Shakespeare Theater, and while Shelby wouldn't reveal specifics, he said "you might find yourself sitting next to Hamlet." Throughout the evening, the orchestra will be accompanied by top-notch talent, including singer Faye Carol, violinist Mathew Szemela, saxophonist Jules Broussard, and trumpeter Joel Behrman.
Cal Performances Associate Director Rob Bailis likened Shelby to Ellington, describing him as a formidable composer, arranger, and performer with a creative process similar to Ellington's. "We've come to respect that Marcus is truly an Ellington scholar," he said. "He brings rigorously researched interpretive nuance to these classics."
But despite being well versed in the Duke's music, Shelby still had to do lots of research on Such Sweet Thunder. "I wasn't sure why the plays and the music connected," Shelby said. "I had to understand the motives. I learned Ellington put his impressions into sound." The music is meant to evoke the essence of Othello, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and other Shakespeare plays, rather than to depict a particular character or scene. Throughout his fifty-year career, Ellington wasn't limited by "cultural constructs," said Shelby.
In his own work, Shelby has been informed by his religious upbringing. As the grandson of a Baptist minister, he learned music wasn't just entertainment; it was a fight for civil rights. "Slavery was on this land and the blues were the tool oppressed people used to try to free themselves," he said.
Over the years, Shelby has been commissioned to produce pieces based on the lives and work of several of his heroes, and he conducts thorough research on his subjects. For example, a project relating to Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy had him traveling through the South for years before he wrote a single note. "I think of composition as more than sitting around and imagining," Shelby said. "I learn about characters, stories, action — these things turn into melody, harmony and rhythm."
Shelby is also inspired by musicians such as Louis Armstrong, who he calls "the father of his language, improvisation"; Nina Simone, who used her music to make positive change during the era of segregation; and Stevie Wonder, for incorporating "the full breadth of black music."
He said he admires Ellington's ability to listen astutely and learn from everything around him — "and he could talk a good game," Shelby said. But it was Ellington's ability to write for the talent he had on hand that most inspires him. "He knew how to use their gifts and wrote tailor-made parts for them to play," he said. "It was critical to Ellington's development."
Shelby said his job is much like Ellington's: "showing racial pride, tearing down perceptions of African Americans in this country, and trying to learn through history how music can carry ideas and make change." In Shelby's capable hands, such a task looks easy.