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The Duke Comes Homes

Metro Stage’s “Ellington” will showcase the DC native’s life and music.

Lovers of Duke Ellington’s iconic song “Take the A-Train” may be tempted to take the train to Alexandria, but MetroStage, which is presenting “Ellington: The Life and Music of the Duke” from July 14 to August 6 recommends the George Washington Parkway for people hurrying to their theatre at 1201 North Royal Street.

Of course, when Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in North West Washington in 1899 there was no Metro and no parkway. His father worked for the Navy and was a part-time butler at the White House. The young Duke’s first job was selling peanuts at Senators baseball games in Griffith Stadium. His clandestine visits to a local poolroom were formative experiences in his appreciation for music.

In “Ellington,” writer David Scully seeks not only to entertain fans with the Duke’s music, he tells the Duke’s story. The distinctive way that Scully weaves together music and exposition is apparent from the moment the Duke takes his first breath:

“Edward quickly breathed in the

New day

Born into the flourishing

Bustling

Turn of the century

Colored Metropolis known as

Washington DC.”

Director David Koch said the flow of the biographical story between songs sets Scully’s work apart from other cabaret-style shows. “Everything feels like this fluid, rhythmical song, even when they’re talking about the Duke,” Koch explained.

For Scully, the information presented between songs is the key to the performance. “It’s a multi-layered view of the Duke,” Scully said. “Only a few people know what a complex musician he was. He delved into so many different genres … our program is in ninety minutes to paint a real, deep picture of the Duke.”

SCULLY HAS written several works in a similar style to “Ellington,” all involve the biography and music of jazz legends. He explained that when listening to performances of works by musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Ellington, he felt he was missing part of the story. “When I watched cabaret … I always want to add more substance to a cabaret experience,” Scully said. “What I always strove to do is teach people things that they hadn’t known about other artists and what they had to deal with we’re so used to seeing the fruit of their labors that we don’t delve into their labors.”

Faced with the challenge of taking a singing performance deeper, Scully asked himself, “How am I going to tell that story? And how am I going to tell the story in four lines? And how does that story lead into a song?” The answer, a lyrical interweaving of biographical spoken verse with appropriate songs from the jazz musicians’ oeuvre, was inspired by an unlikely source: the high energy and high decibel concert performances of Bruce Springsteen and James Brown. These performers often take time between songs to explain their inspiration and the life stories that contributed to their composition. Scully notices the effect these monologues, despite their length, could have on the crowd. “It has a lot more resonance and a lot more emotional power,” he said. “By the time he sings that song, you’re knocked out.”

Capturing Ellington’s music and his life were both challenging, and for opposite reasons. Ellington was a prolific songwriter throughout his long career. “[His music] goes in all these different directions,” said Scully. Choosing 30 songs to represent his legacy was difficult. But the man who gave the world so much of his music, gave it very little of himself. “He’s kind of a mystery, a gentle man, a quiet man,” said Scully. Even Ellington’s own memoirs were remarkable for how little information they conveyed about their subject. But Scully searched for life stories and discarded songs until he had his show. “It packs a lot into ninety minutes,” he said. “Duke is hard to get hold of and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of getting hold of him … It was the hardest thing I’ve had to write.”

“ELLINGTON” touches on controversial subjects, particularly the convoluted politics of race relations that led Ellington to be criticized by both whites and blacks at different times in his career. Scully believes understanding the dark moments behind the music give it greater impact when it is performed.

“A lot of those songs that we know, like ‘A-Train,” came out of a sense of desperation,” Scully explained. “A-Train” was written because of a union strike against radio broadcasters that froze Ellington’s access to his own music. “The Duke needed new tunes and he needed them soon,” the text of “Ellington” explains.

Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s long-serving composer and arranger, whose life the show also explores, responded creatively to the pressure. For “A-Train,” he simply reworked some directions to Ellington’s apartment he had jotted down.

“Ellington's” music director and pianist, William Knowles, said the opportunity to play iconic jazz pieces like “Take the A-Train” drew him to the performance. “[Ellington] has written a lot of great music and that is in the show. There are some gems of the Ellington repertoire,” Knowles said, listing “Sophisticated Lady,” and “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues,” as some of his other favorites.

“To me Ellington epitomizes elegance, lush harmonies, great singable melodies, and of course there’s always that driving swing,” added, “to me it’s a very American sound.”

Knowles added that he likes the scale of the performance. “I really like the cabaret style. It’s very intimate. You bring the audience very close … It feels like a jazz club more so than a theatre.”

ACTOR AND SINGER Jimi Ray Malary is at the center of this intimacy. Except for the jazz quartet that backs him up, he is the only man onstage, charged with telling the story of the Duke and channeling his music. Malary, who was visiting friends in Europe in the weeks before the production, is perfectly suited to this challenge.

“He has a huge opera voice,” said director Koch, “but in these shows he uses his jazz voice and it’s quite remarkable to see a person be able to switch over like that. He has this style and sophistication that really fits the Duke.”

Koch began his career as a trombonist and singer. He had the opportunity to perform in Seattle musicals, and soon moved into the production side of the footlights. He began producing his own cabaret shows because he was attracted to the intimate challenges of the genre and its “cultish” popularity.

“It’s a cross between musical theatre and stand-up comedy when it’s done right,” Koch said. “It takes a really adept performer to do cabaret. You need to be in character but also you have to show your own personality. You can’t be phony on stage. People can really look in your eyes and tell what you’re doing.”

Koch relishes the challenge of helping Malary finding the balance to poise between expressing his own personality and that of one of American music’s most dominating figures. “When you’re working with one actor you really get to concentrate on that person,” he said. “You’re looking for truth. You’re constantly challenging your actors to be more and more truthful … You need to find some way to be more believable so we [the audience] go with you.”

Koch said that experience can be very difficult for an actor. He relayed the words of one his friends, a professional actor, after performing cabaret for the first time. “It was terrifying,” Koch’s friend said. “I didn’t want to be myself. I wanted to be someone else.”

“It’s a very interesting little animal,” Koch said of cabaret, “Like any good theatre, when the actors do it right you’re moved out of the whole dimension of sitting in a theatre seat and you’re moved into the show and I guess that’s our job.”

“Ellington” does not use props, costumes, sets or even characters to move the audience into the world onstage. But Koch said it has something far more powerful than impersonation or illusion.

“For me it’s that link with music … It feels like being in someone’s living room when you’re being sung too like that. It just gets back to the basics of great storytelling … You’re basically stripped back to the story or stripped back to the song. They have to be enough. They have to be the whole show. For me it’s a great lesson in honesty. You don’t have the trappings of a big musical .You have the music and the actor there and it has to convey the thought.”