One word comes to mind when Randall Keith Horton thinks back on his first live encounter with the music of Duke Ellington: “Aglow.”
That’s the sensation Horton felt at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on Sept. 16, 1965, for Ellington’s first “Concert of Sacred Music.” At certain moments, “the whole sanctuary was aglow,” recalls Horton, “as if it were lit, not by stage lighting, but by a presence.”
It’s a sensation Horton, now 74, probably hopes to recreate when he leads the Boston University Big Band in selections from Ellington’s sacred music as part of the school’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration Monday, sponsored by BU’s Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground, at Metcalf Hall. The event, titled “Hope, Despair and the Blues,” will also feature other performances from students and faculty, including a cappella group the Allegrettos opening performance of Kanye West’s “Ultralight.”
But surely the four selections from Ellington — with the 17-piece big band, the 35-voice Inner Strength Gospel Choir, interpretive dancers, and tap dancer Adriana Ogle — will be a highlight.
Ellington’s sacred music is some of the least explored of his catalog. Though he’s generally considered one of the towering giants of American music, the Sacred Concerts have suffered the same mixed reaction as some of his other extended pieces, all of them falling somewhere “beyond category” (to borrow Ellington’s own term of highest praise), not jazzy enough for jazz critics and fans, not “serious” enough for the classical world.
With the Sacred Concerts, Ellington faced another sector of disapproval — the clergy. “He’s been on the Devil’s ground, why does he want to come on God’s ground?” as Horton sums up the objection.
But delving into recordings of the Sacred Concerts, one hears all the Ellington trademarks: evocative tone colors, unearthly harmonies, the idiosyncratic instrumental voices of the Ellington band and, yes, plenty of driving swing. Ellington himself considered the sacred music “the most important thing I have ever done.”
Ellington wrote three programs of sacred music, in 1965, 1968, and 1972, known, respectively, as the First, Second, and Third Sacred Concerts. Boston has been lucky: Ellington himself led his orchestra in the Second Sacred Concert at Boston’s Emmanuel Church in 1969. And tireless Ellingtonian Mark Harvey and his Aardvark Jazz Orchestra have performed the music many times, most recently at their 2015 Christmas concert.
Horton’s long history with the Sacred Concert music began that day in San Francisco. A Boston native who grew up at the Lenox Street housing projects in Roxbury and in Dorchester, he moved to San Francisco to study music. Describing himself as still a “beginner” when he “locked eyes” with Ellington at that show, he pursued his studies diligently, eventually working as an arranger with pop acts like the Jackson 5, Martha Reeves, and Marvin Gaye, as well as the San Francisco Symphony (where he worked with Arthur Fiedler on a San Francisco Symphony Pops concert). But he also stayed in touch with Ellington and even worked briefly with him as an assistant conductor and arranger toward the end of Ellington’s life. After Ellington’s death, Horton was approved by Duke’s son Mercer to write an arrangement of his father’s extended work “Black, Brown and Beige.” He then spent 30 years conducting versions of the Sacred Concerts at the behest of Ruth Ellington Boatwright, the composer’s sister.
For Horton, who for years worked in church music and jazz ministries, the Sacred Concerts stand as a profound expression of Ellington’s personal faith, and he repeats the oft-quoted line from Duke: “Now I can say openly what I have been saying to myself on my knees.”
Musically, he says the distinctive essence of the Sacred Concert music is in its extravagant vocal writing. “That’s the music people don’t know. . . . And they’re astounded by how beautiful it is.”
Hope, Despair and the Blues
Jan. 16, 2 p.m. At Metcalf Hall, George Sherman Union, Boston University, 775 Commonwealth Ave. Free admission. 617-353-4126, www.bu.edu
Correction: An earlier version of this story included the wrong date for the concert. It is scheduled for Jan. 16.