Ellington Orchestra swings with the season

Tommy James clearly remembers his first experience with Duke Ellington’s music.

“My dad had the record of ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing),’” he says. “It was the first jazz record I ever heard. I thought it was genius.”

As music director, arranger and pianist of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, James’ initial impression has only grown stronger with time. Ellington’s music, he says, has never been equaled.

Presented by the San Francisco Symphony and led by James, the 16-piece ensemble comes to Davies Symphony Hall on Sunday to play Ellington classics and holiday favorites.

James — no relation to rocker Tommy James, who fronted the Shondells in the 1960s — has worked with a long list of jazz greats, including Cleo Laine, Lionel Hampton and Joe Williams. Yet, when he got the call to join the Ellington Orchestra, he says he found his dream job.

“I never thought I wanted to be a bandleader,” James admitted in a recent call from New York. “But I’m so happy and proud to be representing Duke Ellington’s music.” The orchestra, he added, has just returned from a European tour, with stops in Rome; Istanbul; and Bucharest, Romania.

At Davies, the program will feature Ellington’s best-known songs, including “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Satin Doll.” James also likes to introduce selections from long-form pieces such as the “Latin American Suite.”

Born Edward Kennedy Ellington in 1899, Duke Ellington wrote 1,000 original compositions, moving from big-band hits to award-winning film scores and orchestral works. Throughout his 50-year career, he received 13 Grammy awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. After his death in 1974, his music was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

According to James, who studied composition at Manhattan School of Music, Ellington was one of a kind. “In music school, you spend years learning the rules you have to use,” he says. “To Ellington, it didn’t matter. He just wrote what he wrote. He had such a distinctive style, and he was always progressing.”

Wherever the orchestra performs, James says it’s gratifying to see a new generation of music lovers discovering Ellington.

“We get kids who play in their high school stage bands, and they’re just crazy about it,” he says. “Others are just checking it out, and they really dig it.

“Ellington said there are two kinds of music — the good kind and the other kind,” he adds. “Kids get that.”


The Duke Ellington Orchestra

Presented by the San Francisco Symphony

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $15 to $68
Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org

Holiday highlights

Special San Francisco Symphony programs — in Davies Symphony Hall unless noted otherwise — include:

Peter and the Wolf

Donato Cabrera conducts the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra and Chita Rivera is guest narrator of Prokofiev’s classic piece. [1 and 4 p.m. Saturday at Davies Hall; 3 p.m. Sunday at Flint Center, 21250 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino; $15-$57]

Colors of Christmas

Vocalists Peabo Bryson, Jennifer Holliday, Lea Salonga and Ben Vereen sing their pop hits and Christmas classics. [8 p.m. Tuesday-Dec. 15; $15-$86]

Mariachi Sol de México de José Hernández

The annual celebration of Christmas features favorites from the U.S. and Mexico as well as traditional Mexican music. [8 p.m. Dec. 18; $15-$68]

Handel’s Messiah

Ragnar Bohlin conducts solo vocalists Joélle Harvey, Kelley O’Connor, Richard Croft, Michael Todd Simpson, the symphony and the symphony chorus in the 1741 masterpiece. [6:30 p.m. Dec. 16; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 17; and 2 p.m. Dec. 18; $30-$135]

’Twas the Night

Soprano Lisa Vroman joins members of the symphony’s brass section and singers from the symphony chorus in a program of holiday tunes accompanied by the Ruffatti organ. [7 p.m. Dec. 22-23 and 2 p.m. Dec. 24; $15-$68]

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