My People

Duke Ellington

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My People Review

by Stephen Thomas Erlewine

In a discography as large as Duke Ellington's, it's inevitable some records would fall by the wayside, and My People is one of them. Strangely, it is not a simple one-off session that was forgotten by the public at large. My People was a long-form work designed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, commissioned by the Century of Negro Progress Exposition, which ran the theatrical piece at McCormick Place in Chicago between August 16 and September 2, 1963. Not a small feat by any means, but the accompanying record got lost in time due to its weird release on Contact, a one-off indie run in secret by Bob Thiele, who had to keep its existence hidden from his employers at ABC-Paramount, where he was currently the head of Impulse! Records. The focus of My People is on the drama that could be heard on-stage, so there are narrations -- Duke himself testifies at the opening of "My People" -- and an omnipresent vocal cast led by Joya Sherrill, a singer who received a "featuring" billing on the album cover. There's a certain majesty to the spectacle of this extravagant work and there's also heart here, one that is inextricably tied to the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s. And yet, as a record, My People feels stagey and stuffy, with the emphasis falling on the florid vocal arrangements instead of the confident swing of the ensemble. A large work existing at the intersection of swing, blues, jazz, theater, and social activism is something to celebrate, but My People is a snapshot of a specific era and is most interesting as a representation of its time, not as an individual work.

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