Pianist, composer, and leader of one of the finest big bands in the 20th century, Duke Ellington (1899-1974) is now listed in the database. Ellington’s expressive, energetic, and dance like music makes him a go-to source for choreographers to create new and unique ballets. The choreographer Alvin Ailey, who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater brought Ellington’s work to the stage.
Alvin Ailey began using Ellington’s music in the 1960s; the earliest piece I could find is Reflections in D, premiering in 1963. The positive response to Ellington’s work led Ailey to choreograph several existing Ellington pieces. It wasn’t until 1970 that Ellington and Alvin Ailey collaborated on a brand new ballet, The River. The River comes at a time where Ellington has endured many losses in his life. Duke lost his long time collaborator and arranger, Billy Strayhorn, in 1967. Then in 1970, Johnny Hodges, Duke’s lead alto saxophonist passed away. Both those men are instrumental to Duke’s sound and it didn’t even occur to me that I’ve never heard Duke Ellington without Johnny Hodges until I listened to The River. It sounds unlike any other of his earlier works.
Paired with Ailey’s choreography, the ballet received positive reviews. The critic Hubert Saal wrote in Newsweek: “Ellington’s score is a tone poem, a suite that traces the meandering river’s course and speed from birth as a spring, through rapids, over falls, spinning into whirlpools, subsiding into lakes, passing by cities, ending in the sea. It is a musical allegory in the course of which the river from spring to sea parallels the course of life from birth to death, a cycle, according to Ellington, of ‘heavenly anticipation of rebirth.’ The music is itself like a river, constantly flowing, changing speed and shape, instantly accessible melodically. Ellington parades it all from the slow, folk-song opening ‘Spring’ through the jazzy swingtime `Vortex’ to the spiritual and blues of `Two Cities.”
Following the success of The River, Ailey and Ellington colloborated one more time, for the ballet, Three Black Kings. Ellington wrote Three Black Kings on his death bed, instructing his son Mercer how to complete the ballet. The Three Kings featured in this ballet are: Balthazar the Black King of the Nativity, Solomon the King of Israel, and Martin Luther King Jr, who was one of Ellington’s good friends. Three Black Kings premiered in 1976, two years after Ellington’s death.
After Ellington’s death, Ailey continued to use Ellington’s music a source for creating new ballets. On Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s website, I count almost two dozen ballets that feature the music of Duke Ellington including the two above.