From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Pastor looks at sacred side of Duke Ellington
13 Mar 2000 14:18:50
March 13, 2000 News media contact: Linda Bloom·(212) 870-3803·New York
NOTE: Photographs are available with this story.
A UMNS News Feature
By Linda Bloom*
The Rev. Janna Tull Steed was on a retreat in California when she made a
discovery that would unexpectedly lead to her development as an expert on
jazz great Duke Ellington
One of the records she played in the retreat center's listening room was of
Ellington's "Second Sacred Concert." She knew Ellington had written the
tune, "Come Sunday," which can be found in the United Methodist Hymnal. But
Steed was unaware of his sacred concert series. She played the two-record
album, was captivated by a song called "Heaven," and made a note to find out
more about the concerts when she began work on a master's degree in sacred
theology at Yale University.
That was in 1992. Since then, Steed has become an authority on Ellington's
sacred music, culminating last year in the co-writing and producing of an
hour-long documentary for Public Radio International, part of the Duke
Ellington Centennial Radio Project, and the publication of Duke Ellington, A
Spiritual Biography, which was released in October.
Her involvement with Ellington's music also has had a healing aspect,
"something that gave me a sense of hope and new life," she said. Steed, who
was diagnosed with a progressive liver disease in 1979, has been on a
waiting list for a liver transplant for about two years. Currently on
disability leave from the United Methodist California-Nevada Annual
(regional) Conference, she resides in Creston, Iowa.
Her book is the first volume in a new series of spiritual biographies,
"Lives and Legacies," from Crossroad Publishing. What makes it different
from the many others about Ellington is Steed's examination of the evidence
that his spirituality was developed from childhood, she said.
He was unconventional enough "both in his behavior and his theology" that he
defied easy categorizing, she said. "People who are really very much
Ellington fans and see him as an unique artist in this century have been
drawn to the spirituality of his music without necessarily having the
vocabulary to describe what that is," she added.
The sacred concerts gave Ellington an opportunity to be what he called "a
messenger," with the message directed not to God, but to the people.
"The message Duke wanted to deliver consisted of his own beliefs about God,
which were rooted in Christian doctrine but idiosyncratically selected and
interpreted," Steed writes in Duke Ellington: A Spiritual Biography. "The
medium was his music, often paired with lyrics of his own making, and
enhanced by dance and narrative."
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in 1899 in Washington. He began making his
mark as a jazz musician, band leader and composer in the 1920s in New York.
He was a beloved international figure when the first sacred concert took
place in 1965 at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the seat of the Episcopal
bishop of California. The second and third sacred concerts occurred in 1968
and 1973, respectively. Ellington died in 1974.
The concerts were performed not just once but many times, in venues ranging
from a small Mormon college to Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in
Minneapolis to a Jewish temple in Beverly Hills.
"It really was a mission for him in the last 10 years of his life," Steed
But she realized that aside from serious Ellington fans, many people are
unaware of that music today. "I felt this was a little piece of history that
everybody's forgotten about," she explained. "At the time, these concerts
were front-page news."
Steed's desire to write a book about the sacred concerts was not unusual,
considering her longtime interests in writing, music and religion. She was
raised as a Methodist in Crossett, Ark., and was active in the Wesley
Foundation and Methodist Student Movement in the early 1960s. Her brother,
the Rev. Justin Tull, is a United Methodist pastor in Dallas.
After graduating from the University of Arkansas in 1964, she applied to
seminary but never went, instead taking jobs in social work and journalism.
Ten years later, Steed had "what I would call a deeper conversion to the
faith of my childhood." After earning a master of divinity degree from Yale
in 1979, she was ordained and served as a pastor in Connecticut and
California for more than a decade.
In early 1990, her chronic health problems became more pronounced and she
also endured a difficult marital separation. "I had to kind of rethink how
to live my life with fairly severe limitations on my energy and activity,"
When Steed was put on the liver transplant list, she was afraid she would
never be able to write her book. But interest in Duke Ellington was building
because of the approaching centennial year of his birth. She began receiving
invitations to speak, which eventually led to the radio documentary. The
documentary helped land the contract for the book, which was expanded from a
focus on the sacred concerts to the "spiritual biography" concept.
Yale's music library and faculty provided a bounty of research material for
Steed. She also was able to interview Ruth Ellington Boatwright, the
composer's younger sister, who is alive today. With her husband, Boatwright
had produced some concerts of Ellington's sacred music after his death, and
she "thought the sacred music was very important to Duke," Steed said.
Steed was able to finish the book without experiencing any serious health
crises. Writing it, she said, "gave me something to look forward to rather
than sitting here waiting for the beeper (announcing a transplant) to go
Duke Ellington, A Spiritual Biography can be found at Barnes and Noble and
Borders Books or ordered at Amazon.com. Customer reviews on the book also
can be found on Amazon.com.
# # #
*Bloom is news director of United Methodist News Service's New York office.
United Methodist News Service
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