I’m pretty sure I promised I’d try and avoid writing about either Brighton and Hove Albion or jazz, but I’m going to recant on one of those. This week we went to the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, designed by Christopher Wren and built in the 1660s. It’s a notoriously uncomfortable building and sufficiently vertiginous that you get given a card with a safety warning, but it’s very significant for us, because it was there that our son Simon received his MSc in eLearning from Oxford University a couple of years back.
The three of us went to hear the Oxford University Jazz Orchestra and the choir Schola Cantorum of Oxford give a performance of the Duke Ellington Sacred Concert music. It’s good to know that a university can still raise a big band and indeed one of near-professional standard; better still, that several hundred people can turn out on a wet Sunday evening to fill the Sheldonian. I imagine that any university student has more sense than to try and make a living from playing jazz, but the bass player Lila Chrisp and particularly the terrific drummer Ben Varnam are names I’ll be keeping an eye open for just in case.
The band was supported by a couple of professionals: vocalist Tina May and the master saxophonist Nigel Hitchcock. Annette Walker tap-danced a couple of selections, naturally enough including “David Danced Before The Lord”, and James Burton conducted choir and orchestra with immense enthusiasm. I’ve never heard the music played better or with more emotional power. Duke Ellington’s sacred music was very important to him but received some pretty poor reviews from critics at the time, but I doubt whether anyone in a building which holds up to 1000 people had a negative word to say about the music or the performance.
And, yes, I do have just the most tenuous justification for mentioning Duke Ellington. Iva Sallay in her blog at www.findthefactors.com recently mentioned a quote attributed to Duke:
“A problem is a chance for you to do your best.”
You can find it in his autobiography ‘Music Is My Mistress’. There are a few books about Duke on my shelves – one of them I came across a few years back, very cheaply in a secondhand book shop. I’d never seen it before, and it looked interesting, so I happily coughed up a few pence. When I got home I looked more carefully and found proof I must indeed have seen it before – I’d written my name inside the front cover when I’d purchased that very copy the first time!