LOS ANGELES — Composer Duke Ellington was known for expanding jazz forms into orchestral settings and when he composed "New World A-Comin" for a piano and orchestra, he was envisioning a world free from war, greed and categorizations.

What You Need To Know

  • Composer and performer Duke Ellington expanded jazz forms into the orchestral concert hall in works such as "New World A-Comin," “Black, Brown and Beige” and “Sacred Concerts”

  • Ellington often drew on the Black American experience for his symphonic work which blends elements of spirituals, jazz, blues and West Indian dance music

  • Conductor Thomas Wilkins said Ellington belongs in the symphonic music canon along with composer such as Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mozart

  • Pianist Gerald Clayton performs "New World A-Comin," which was inspired by the writings of Roi Ottley which documented the lives of African Americans in Harlem in the 1920s and '30s

Now, conductor Thomas Wilkins and pianists Gerald Clayton are bringing that spirit of Ellington to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in a series of concerts.

However, Wilkins said, coming from the jazz world, Ellington, until recently, has often been overlooked in the symphonic concert hall.

“He was a serious composer and his music belongs in the canon along with Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mozart,” Wilkins said at a recent rehearsal.

Ellington’s work transcends boundaries of both jazz and symphonic music, blending elements of spirituals, jazz, blues and even West Indian dance music. Wilkins, who is the principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, said the Los Angeles Philharmonic embraces what Ellington brings to the orchestra.

“What [Ellington] brings to the orchestra is an understanding of what a lick is,” explained Wilkins. “But that's not a sort of rhythm. That's just a thing. And you just play it like a thing. And this orchestra sees that rhythm and says, ‘Oh, it’s that thing.’”

His father who was bassist and composer John Clayton inspired four-time Grammy-nominated pianist Gerald Clayton. He pushed Gerald to keep exploring, innovating and reinventing in his musical practice because these are ideals that embody Ellington's life and work, too. 

“Really, we’re all downstream from Duke Ellington,” said Clayton. “We're all affected by not only his composition and his playing but also his philosophy. That philosophy really has guided an entire community of musicians who are striving for honest expression and breaking categories.”

The title "New World A-Comin" was taken from Roi Ottley’s book, which documented the daily lives of African Americans in Harlem during the 1920s and '30s as they look toward a better future. Wilkins says the title resonates today and, for him, the orchestra, with its diversity of instruments coming together to create a harmonious sound, remains a powerful metaphor for our age.

“That was Duke’s feeling when he wrote the piece,” Wilkins said. “That he wanted a world without categorization, without taking away the dignity of anybody in the space and that's what community is all about. And, good lord, don't we need that in this time?”

"New World A-Comin" is a musical message of hope. It returns to the LA Phil, which also performed the piece at the Hollywood Bowl in 1966.