"For my money, he's the best American composer of all time, period," Sam Shoup says of Duke Ellington. "Not just as a jazz composer, but you could make a case for best American composer."
Shoup should know. He has arranged music for the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. He is a master upright bassist and teaches at the University of Memphis. Shoup and saxophonist Gary Topper run the Bluff City Jazz Project with the help of American music specialist and promoter David Less. The group will present "An Evening of Ellington" at the Germantown Performing Arts Center on Saturday, October 26th. Also present will be Ellington Orchestra alumnus Bill Easley.
"Bill Easley played in the Ellington band about a year after Ellington died," says Topper, who has played on recordings for Al Green and Keith Richards. "Ellington's son Mercer had taken over the band. Bill did it for about six months on the road, and they would call him back over the years. He's a clarinet specialist. He played with the band off and on for about six years. He knows the music. We just had a rehearsal with the sax section. With the discussions he brought to the table, it was great."
The performance will mark a couple of Memphis music firsts: The Bluff City Jazz Project is the first subscription-based offering by GPAC for a jazz series. Usually the model is used for the symphonic season. But Less thought the idea of a subscription would work for jazz too. It's also the first time a local act will take the stage of the Duncan-Williams Performance Hall.
"David contacted Paul Chandler at GPAC about the idea, and he was very excited and immediately went for it," Shoup says. "They've been doing this Jazz in the Box program for a long time. That's been successful, but now it's moving to the main stage. You've got to give him kudos for that. He's saying there's lots of tremendous local talent here; let's showcase it. And I couldn't be happier about him feeling that way."
But it's all about the music.
"Duke Ellington wrote more than 2,000 songs," Shoup says. "We won't be performing all of them. We have a 15-piece band. We're trying to take a diverse approach that spans Ellington's whole career. There's some fascinating stuff to draw on. We've tried to draw from several different areas of his career. We have some stuff with smaller groups and some stuff with a big band."
The band is composed of heavies: Shoup on bass [don't believe him when he says he's bringing a Marshall stack], Tom Lonardo on drums, Marc Franklin, Reed McCoy, and Scott Thompson on trumpet, and Topper on saxophone, to name a few.
The evening was originally planned as a tribute to Greenwood, Mississippi, native and University of Memphis alumnus Mulgrew Miller. But Miller died on May 29th of this year.
"He was actually in my theory class when I was here," Shoup says of Miller. "Unfortunately, he passed away. We decided to go ahead with the project. But in the future, we want to try to feature an artist and bring someone in. There's talk of doing a Miles Davis show. We even thought about doing a Frank Zappa show and bringing in [his son] Dweezil, if he'll do it. But that's how we want to set it up."
Shoup is quick to point out that the U of M has a serious track record for producing jazz greats.
"Mulgrew Miller, Donald Brown, and James Williams all went to this university. They've all become jazz stars. I say to all of my students, 'If you work hard, you can become a jazz star from this university. Because it's been done. It's been done three times.'"
While most of Ellington's work is in the charts — the arranging of the instruments into harmony and rhythm — he was known as "the piano player," a deferential joke in light of his unparalleled jazz compositions.
Alvie Givhan is on the piano bench this Saturday. He's another U of M grad. Shoup adds:
"He studied with Gene Rush, and he played down on Beale Street at King's Palace for 12 years. He's a great player and is very enthusiastic about the show. The band is really the feature. Duke Ellington played solos, but there's not even piano on some of the tunes we're playing. It's not even in the score for some of the suites. There's plenty to play solo-wise, and different people are featured at different points."
Shoup worked his way through the University of Memphis by writing and arranging for the school's bands.
"They still play some of my charts, and I can hear all of my mistakes. When I was in the band, we got to go to the Final Four when Finch and Robinson played against Bill Walton. I was under the goal. I'm in all of the pictures, because I was ringside. I love the Pep Band. I've got these mutton-chop sideburns. I've been to two championship games, and we've lost both of them. If we win again, I'm not going."
Being at that game is one big-time Memphis credential. Calling courtside "ringside" makes you seventh-level Memphian. And I'm not even sure how to handle this last Memphis credential: Shoup was a founding member of the Dog Police.
The Bluff City Jazz Project presents "An Evening with Ellington" at GPAC on Saturday, October 26th, at
8 p.m. Tickets start at $25; available at www.gpacweb.com.