Duke Ellington’s legacy as a jazz master isn’t forgotten in Sheridan Road’s vocal performance, composed to the tune of some of his most famous tracks.
Jazz, civil rights and composing were all a big part of the life of jazz juggernaut Duke Ellington. Exploring these themes in “The Road to Ellington,” Sheridan Road put together a tribute to Ellington featuring many of his greatest hits.
Sheridan Road is a Tulsa vocal jazz ensemble founded in 2012 by Dr. Barry Epperly. Their group consists of six vocalists, who all sang in the performance. Marla Patterson and Jennifer Wilson are the sopranos, Gwen Alley is the alto, Brian Wilson and Steve Raiford are the tenors and Barry Epperly is the bass. They were accompanied by special guest Donald Ryan on the piano and six other band members.
The performance opened with Epperly providing some history about Duke Ellington, including his real name, Edward Kennedy. They called him one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. The first musical number, aptly titled “Duke’s Place,” featured all the vocalists and was upbeat with the frequent invitation to come to Duke’s place, which set the tone for a fun show.
The most delightful aspect of the performance was the little tidbits of info about Ellington and his compositions, which the vocalists, Raiford and Epperly, provided between numbers. The fun facts included motivations behind his compositions. He wrote a composition for the Civil Rights Movement, called “Black, Brown, and Beige.” Epperly informed the crowd one of the songs in that album, titled “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a Drive-In Now,” actually prompted J. Edgar Hoover to investigate him. They also informed the audience his song, “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” was written by him as an initiation into the Freemasons.
Along with providing biographical information about Ellington’s life, the vocalists joked with each other and invited audience participation. This aspect of the show made it feel like a small, intimate gathering of friends and family who enjoyed laughing and listening to jazz together.
The rest of Act I was mainly composed of group vocal numbers, along with a couple of compositions just featuring the band. It closed on a high note with the toe-tapping number “It Don’t Mean a Thing.”
Act II opened with the “highly philosophical song, ‘Bli-Blip,’” as Raiford jokingly introduced it. Unlike Act I, which featured mainly the vocalists as a group and band numbers, Act II mostly consisted of the vocalists singing solo and acapella numbers. The second act also featured pianist Donald Ryan soloing in the Ellington Interlude. The vocalists closed the show with Ellington’s most popular song, “Take the A Train.” Laughing, Raiford said, “You can’t have an Ellington show without the ‘A Train.’”
This performance was the last one for vocalist Jennifer Wilson, who has been with the group from the beginning. It was also their last performance of the season. They will be announcing their schedule for the upcoming 2018-2019 season soon.