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Collaboration, one might say, is the essence of jazz. Even Ellington’s Three Black Kings, his final composition, proves the point in its own way. Ellington had nearly completed the piece before he died. But he rarely wrote the final notes of a composition until the day of the premiere, leaving his son Mercer, a successful bandleader and composer in his own right, to guess how it should ultimately be completed. The great composer and arranger Luther Henderson orchestrated a version that Mercer premiered at a tribute concert for his father in 1976 – where First Lady Betty Ford gave the downbeat. Alvin Ailey choreographed a ballet to accompany the piece, which his troupe performed throughout the 1976/77 season. And Ellington’s longtime friend Maurice Peress, an esteemed conductor, eventually rescored it for symphony orchestra. It took many hands to create the piece as we know it today.

Intended (in Mercer’s words) as a “eulogy for Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Three Black Kings continues Ellington’s series of narrative pieces on a grand symphonic scale – a series that includes Black, Brown, and Beige (1943), Harlem (1950), and Night Creature (1955). Traversing centuries, each movement captures the psychological depth of its respective subject. The first, depicting King Balthazar (the black king of the Nativity), features propulsive percussion sounds that explode into ravishing, exotic melodies in the strings. The episodic second, which fluctuates between sultry strings accompanied by harp and upbeat passages reminiscent of Ellington’s jazz orchestra, evokes King Solomon’s taste for love more than his fabled wisdom. The gospel-inflected third, complete with subtle tambourine backbeats, is a fitting tribute to the Reverend Doctor King himself – a man who, as Nina Simone put it in her own music eulogy, “had seen the mountaintop, and knew he could not stop, always living with the threat of death ahead.” — Douglas Shadle