Duke Ellington's only opera and one of his fairly unknown and rarely performed works, Queenie Pie, blends big band sound and clever lyrics with the musical styles of opera, jazz and musical theater. The title character, Queenie Pie, was inspired by the life of Madam C. J. Walker, the first African American self-made woman millionaire, who developed and sold a line of hair and beauty products through innovative mail orders and door-to-door sales. Interested in the opera genre since the 1940s, Ellington started composing Queenie Pie in 1962, when he received a commission from the New York public TV station WNET. In collaboration with librettist Betty McGettigan, he worked on the opera from 1967 to his death in 1974, but the work remained unfinished. Since then, different versions have been produced (1986 in Philadelphia and Washington, DC; 1993 in Brooklyn; 2008 by the Oakland Opera Theater and in 2009 at the University of Texas, Austin.)
QUEENIE PIE is the National Honorary Degree and Title bestowed annually upon the Beautician-Cosmetologist voted "best" by her professional colleagues. The celebration surrounding the event is a Mardi Gras in Harlem, held on the 13th of every May.
For the past 10 years, Queenie has earned and held the esteemed title. She came up from the ranks of Beauticians, diligently studying and working to become the best. She also entered into the business of producing beauty products. With business and position fairly secure, Queenie has settled into a life of social respectability. Her "place" is a gathering salon for interesting people. She and they all love each other madly - a most necessary ingredient. A mixture of instant approval and applause.
This years' contest finds Queenie in serious trouble with a beautiful, young contender - the smooth, sleek personification of her name, Café Au Lait. Possessed of a bad, jealous temper, Café Au Lait is TROUBLE. Holt Fay, a handsome member of Queenie's circle, is in charge of the contest festivities and has fallen in love with Café Au Lait. The contest now becomes a personal struggle with the rivalry comes to a boiling point resulting in Holt Fay’s murder. Queenie wins the title and crown again, but by default.
Queenie realizes that time is fast on her heels and during a poignant self-appraisal her faithful old friend and servant guides her thoughts back to his birthplace - an uncharted Island, where there is a magic formula for Everlasting Anythingness.
Queenie embarks on the journey to this island, acquires the mysterious article of necessity only to lose it through a mix-up in following the directions. On the island, stripped of entitlements and delusions, Queenie sees her true reflection. (Ken Roht)
Duke Ellington called his music "American Music" rather than jazz, and liked to describe those who impressed him as "beyond category. He remains one of the most influential figures in jazz, if not in all American music and is widely considered as one of the twentieth century's best known African American personalities. As both a composer and a band leader, Ellington's reputation has increased since his death, with thematic repackaging of his signature music often becoming best-sellers. Posthumous recognition of his work includes a special award citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board.
Duke Ellington influenced millions of people both around the world and at home. He gave American music its own sound for the first time. In his fifty year career, he played over 20,000 performances in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East as well as Asia.
Simply put, Ellington transcends boundaries and fills the world with a treasure trove of music that renews itself through every generation of fans and music-lovers. His legacy continues to live on and will endure for generations to come. Wynton Marsalis said it best when he said "His music sounds like America." Because of the unmatched artistic heights to which he soared, no one deserved the phrase “beyond category” more than Ellington, for it aptly describes his life as well. He was most certainly one of a kind that maintained a lifestyle with universal appeal which transcended countless boundaries.
Duke Ellington is best remembered for the over 3000 songs that he composed during his lifetime. His best known titles include; "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing", "Sophisticated Lady", "Mood Indigo", “Solitude", "In a Mellotone",and "Satin Doll". The most amazing part about Ellington was that he was the most creative while he was on the road. It was during this time when he wrote his most famous piece, "Mood Indigo" which brought him world-wide fame.
When asked what inspired him to write, Ellington replied, "My men and my race are the inspiration of my work. I try to catch the character and mood and feeling of my people".
Duke Ellington's popular compositions set the bar for generations of brilliant jazz, pop, theatre and soundtrack composers to come. While these compositions guarantee his greatness, what makes Duke an iconoclastic genius, and an unparalleled visionary, what has granted him immortality are his extended suites. From 1943's Black, Brown and Beige to 1972's Uwis Suite, Duke used the suite format to give his jazz songs a far more empowering meaning, resonance and purpose: to exalt, mythologize and re-contextualize the African-American experience on a grand scale.
Duke Ellington was partial to giving brief verbal accounts of the moods his songs captured. Reading those accounts is like looking deep into the background of an old photo of New York and noticing the lost and almost unaccountable details that gave the city its character during Ellington's heyday, which began in 1927 when his band made the Cotton Club its home. ''The memory of things gone,'' Ellington once said, ''is important to a jazz musician,'' and the stories he sometimes told about his songs are the record of those things gone. But what is gone returns, its pulse kicking, when Ellington's music plays, and never mind what past it is, for the music itself still carries us forward today.
Duke Ellington was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966. He was later awarded several other prizes, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, and the Legion of Honor by France in 1973, the highest civilian honors in each country. He died of lung cancer and pneumonia on May 24, 1974, a month after his 75th birthday, and is buried in the Bronx, in New York City. At his funeral, attended by over 12,000 people at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Ella Fitzgerald summed up the occasion, "It's a very sad day...A genius has passed." (Reprinted from www.dukeellington.com)
Jeff Lindberg - Conductor
Ken Roht - Director/Choreographer
Danila Korogodsky - Set Design
Brandon Baruch - Lighting Design
Chicago Jazz Orchestra