Jazz it up 

Donald Byrd pays homage to Ellington with In a Different Light

Choreographer Donald Byrd has made classic American jazz music part of his personal mission -- in dance.

"I consider jazz to be the African-American classical music. It's an assimilation of African musical styles and European musical traditions," says Byrd.

Since 1976 he has created more than 80 works for dance, many of which have utilized the music of America's greatest jazz composers -- and none is greater, in Byrd's estimation, than Duke Ellington. His latest work, In a Different Light: Duke Ellington is currently on its world premiere tour, with a stop in Atlanta along the way.

"Duke Ellington is certainly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, jazz composer in the history of American jazz," says Byrd. "In other words, if you're going to talk about jazz, Ellington would be a main part of that discussion. He was such a prolific artist and because of that his music is so varied. In fact, one of the previous works I presented also used Ellington in another context. I wanted to try to shed some light on how broad his musical language was by presenting it so that the audience can listen to it visually."

Because of the stylistic variety of Ellington's works, Byrd found it a choreographic challenge to match movement to music. His strongly developed sense of historical chronology and progression in music and dance culture served to help him in the creation process.

"In the scoring of 'A Gentle Prelude' we hear only the piano, with a little drum -- it reminds me very much of the mid-19th century European composers," says Byrd. "I use this piece in the second act with very balletic, traditionally based choreography. But in the first act I use some of Ellington's music from the early part of his career, before he was performing at the Cotton Club. The music has its roots in New Orleans jazz, so I use images of turn-of-the-century minstrel entertainment and ragtime. The dance styles show a strong 1920s influence."

Donald Byrd opened his first dance companies in Los Angeles in 1978 and New York in 1983, regularly presenting eight dancers in a 40-week performance season, always with annual European and American tours. According to his mission statement, he strives for a thematic scheme in his original pieces -- a reflection of mainstream society and the African-American experience.

To that end, some of his works have been evocations of the African-American influence on American pop culture, using scores pieced together from the archives of the great jazz composers. His 1996 Harlem Nutcracker was choreographed to the big band sounds of Ellington, while his 1991 JazzTrain, currently on its second national tour, is danced to the more mainline jazz sounds of Max Roach, Geri Allen and Vernon Reid.

Byrd feels that Ellington's mainstream appeal to American pop culture, then and now, coupled with his consistent integrity and high standards as an artist and composer, provide a huge window of opportunity for a choreographer to explore.

"It's certainly a balance -- to try and maintain the integrity of his music while acknowledging its broad popular appeal," Byrd admits. "I try to present a mix of his things that are accessible in that context.

"One of the things that first interested me is that there were so many different ways to go with this," Byrd continues. "We had a community showing of In a Different Light at the Brooklyn Museum of Art last year, before its world premiere. The best of it was, the museum is in the middle of a black community. All the 'church ladies' showed up, which was kind of scary for me because it brought back some pretty vivid childhood memories of being with them as a kid. One of them said to me, 'I'm surprised you didn't use any of Ellington's sacred music!' The wonderful thing is that they knew that much about Ellington, knew that he had written sacred pieces. And then, it just shows how many dimensions there are to him as a composer."

Donald Byrd/The Group presents In a Different Light: Duke Ellington April 28 at 8 p.m. at the Robert Ferst Center for the Arts, 349 Ferst Drive, Georgia Tech campus. $48. 404-894-9600.

www.ferstcenter.gatech.edu.

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