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The Orpheus Suite
An introduction to Ellington
David Bintley discusses the appeal of the jazz legend
Read about the legend of Orpheus
Read reviews of previous performances
Journalist Duncan Heining talks to the big band leader and composer of The Orpheus Suite
David Bintley on the attraction of jazz
The creator of Take Five talks about his love of jazz
See shots from the Company studios
An overview of the ballet
Read quotes from reviews of previous performances
Meet the characters portrayed in the ballet
Geoffrey Smith looks at Duke Ellington's relationship with dance
An introduction to Ellington
David Bintley on Duke Ellington and The Orpheus Suite:
The Orpheus Suite completes my trilogy of works inspired by the life and music of Duke Ellington. The idea for a ballet telling the story of Orpheus by drawing parallels with Ellington's life and set against the darker side of the jazz experience, came to me a number of years ago.
In the mid 1930s, Ellington's fame was such that he and his orchestra had become a household name the length and breadth of the USA. In 1936 the band undertook a tour of the southern states and in order to provide both safety and convenience (as hotels and restaurants there were still racially segregated), the band travelled in its own deluxe Pullman railroad train.
The tour was a roaring success, prompting one native of Carolina to declare, 'Duke, if you were a white man you'd be a great composer'. A police presence was still required at the band's concerts however as several members had been threatened with beatings. It was the story of this tour, and the irony of an audience that loved the band's music, but hated their colour, that first made me equate Ellington with Orpheus, the Thracian poet whose music was so powerful and bewitching it could not only move stone and charm wild beasts, but even calm the denizens of Hades, the land of the dead.
From its very beginnings in the work songs of the slave plantations of the southern states, jazz has co-existed with misery and deprivation. The abuse of the Afro-American throughout history has given birth to this, the only true American art form. But the battle to win recognition for this art and its people resulted in many casualties. Jazz existed in a a twilight world of crime, drugs and prostitution, and many musicians fell prey to the despair which seemed to dog their lives despite the adulation of millions.
Ellington was no stranger to this world, but managed to steer his band through the roughest of waters for over 40 years. By the end of his life, a period which had seen a transformation in jazz and the lives of the black American, Ellington had assumed legendary status as the legitimiser of his art and one of America's greatest composers, in whatever genre.
By his own account however, Ellington's greatest musical achievement was the second of his Sacred Concerts. Written towards the end of his life, it is a work in praise of God written for a combination of band with chorus and soloists; it has received numerous performances in some of the world's greatest cathedrals. Ellington died of lung cancer shortly after its composition, but he left an unparalleled musical legacy which still influences, informs and delights into the 21st century.
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