Growing up in Boston, Paul White was taught from a young age that the Lord’s Day belonged to his father. Paul White Sr. worked tiring blue-collar jobs. While relaxing at home, he loved to listen to music.
On Sundays, he’d get up early and start working the turntable: Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Lester Young, Erroll Garner. He called his favorite music “the sounds.”
Above all, Paul White Sr. was enraptured by the music of the big band leader and adventurous composer Duke Ellington. Mr. White didn’t play an instrument, but he passed along his devotion to his son. By the age of 6, Paul White Jr. was dazzling his after-school teacher at the old South End Music School, playing Mozart by ear.
The younger White went on to a distinguished career as a concert pianist. Now in his 50s, he’s still seeking the sweet spot where jazz, classical, and the music of the church can meet. On May 31 and June 1, he’ll lead a group of church choirs, featured soloists, and his own jazz trio in two performances of “Duke Ellington’s Sacred Jazz,” at Jamaica Plain’s Bethel A.M.E. Church and Roxbury Presbyterian Church, as part of the current season of the Celebrity Series of Boston.
“We’re doing this music as Duke would want to have it done,” White says. “We’re sticking close to the score.”
His connection to Ellington’s so-called Sacred Concerts runs deep. More than two decades ago, White was invited to play piano when the Duke Ellington Orchestra, conducted by Ellington’s son, Mercer, performed at Symphony Hall.
“He kind of took a liking to me,” White recalls. “He liked my voice so much, he had me do the tenor falsetto in ‘Father Forgive,’ ” from Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert.
The Sacred Concerts, composed and presented over the last several years of Ellington’s life, were complex, and sometimes controversial, programs of liturgical jazz. Though the great musician called the concerts the most important work he’d ever done, the music has only occasionally been revived.
Ellington produced his first Concert of Sacred Music at the request of the clergy at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, as part of the church’s 1965 consecration. The second premiered in New York City in 1968, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. (Ellington performed it again a year later at the Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Newbury Street.) The Third Sacred Concert debuted at Westminster Abbey in London in late 1973, when Ellington knew he was dying.
The music began with a simple four-word phrase that Ellington would return to repeatedly: “In the beginning God.” As White hears it, Ellington’s sacred music was “about the situation of African-Americans in this country, what we have gone through. Maybe Mr. Ellington would disagree, but I really do think the gist of all the Sacred Jazz concerts was ‘God, look down and see your people through.’ ”
The idea to produce these concerts arose when Robin Baker, a director of community engagement for the Celebrity Series, sang in an Arlington choir in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. White, who was conducting, mentioned he’d organized a few past performances of Ellington’s spiritual music. Baker was intrigued.
“And off we ran,” she says.
The upcoming performances will feature singers from several Boston choirs, including those of the host churches and Peoples Baptist Church (where White serves as music director), as well as members and faculty of the Boston City Singers. Tap dancer Shaina Schwartz will showcase on “David Danced Before the Lord With All His Might.” White will be joined by bassist Kaela Kaumeheiwa and percussionist Yoron Israel.
The Sacred Jazz concerts, part of the Celebrity Series Neighborhood Arts initiative, are free of charge.
While the first performance was being planned for Bethel A.M.E., the Rev. Liz Walker asked to host it again in her Roxbury church. The former news anchor says she often asked White to entertain at the Christmas parties she’d throw at her old house in Chestnut Hill — “back in the day, when I actually had money,” she jokes.
Since she became pastor, Roxbury Presbyterian has launched a music series called Jazz Vespers, with young players drawn from Berklee College of Music. “So we’ve been doing that in our own humble way,” Walker says. She’s aware that some church elders felt Ellington’s work had no place in a house of worship. Politely, she disagrees.
“This uplift of music, the history of black people, this is sacred,” she says. “It’s our way of finding the transcendence and the divine.
“You hear some music and it makes you cry, it touches your heart. Why can’t that be God?”
Paul White’s father, were he still alive, might have one word for her: Amen.
Duke Ellington’s Sacred Jazz
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Bethel A.M.E. Church, Jamaica Plain, May 31 at 7:30 p.m., and at Roxbury Presbyterian Church, June 1 at 3 p.m. Free. www.celebrityseries.org