Daniel Schnyder spends nearly every day walking in Duke Ellington’s footsteps. Literally.
The Pacific Symphony’s composer-in-residence, who will perform Thursday through Sunday at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, recently moved his family to Harlem to be close to Manhattan’s cultural scene. He didn’t have the funds for a spot downtown, but as it turned out, his affordable digs brought him face-to-face with musical history.
One day, shortly after moving in, Schnyder was walking down the street and noticed a plaque outside a brownstone noting that Ellington, the prolific composer and bandleader, had once lived there. As one who has made a similar career of meshing jazz with other genres, Schnyder felt a rush of affinity.
“He probably had a nice apartment there,” the saxophonist said by phone last week. “I don’t know which number.”
Schnyder, born in 1961 in Switzerland, was 13 when Ellington passed away and never met the “Mood Indigo” author. Still, their paths have intertwined more than once. Dave Taylor, the trombonist in his combo, recorded with Ellington decades ago. And this week at Segerstrom, both Schnyder and Taylor will share the bill with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the symphony’s American Composers Festival.
‘An enormous literature’
The festival, now in its 13th year, focuses on a different theme each time: movie music, the West, Depression-era composers. This time, the symphony zeroed in on two artists who are defined by, well, maybe their lack of definition.
The press kit for this year’s festival describes Ellington and Schnyder as “hybrid composers...neither of whom fit neatly into a single musical category.”
Peppered throughout are more intentionally vague terms: “eclectic borrowers,” “post-classical.” So when the first note of the festival sounds Thursday, it will celebrate not only two esteemed composers, but also the changing attitudes of the culture that came to hold them in esteem.
“My feeling is that classical music is a term that must be used today with a lot of care, because it essentially refers to a previous period when classical music was considered the supreme stratum of musical experience,” said Joe Horowitz, the symphony’s American Composers Festival advisor. “Today, we embrace a much broader and more varied musical landscape.”
Horowitz can’t pinpoint a specific event or era that marked the beginning of that shift, but said the growing reputation of Ellington — who was bypassed for the Pulitzer Prize in 1965 only to receive it posthumously in 1999 — signals how the ethos has changed.
“I’m sure you could say Ellington is a key figure in elevating that discourse in making people feel more respectful toward what he and other jazz giants achieved,” he said. “There’s an enormous literature now in academia on Ellington — something you wouldn’t have been able to predict when Ellington’s band began.”
Schnyder (pronounced “SHNEE-der”) went through a shift of his own growing up in Switzerland. At first, he played the cello and studied only classical music. Once he heard jazz on the radio at age 12, he became enamored of the style.
Learning to play it, though, proved a challenge. Unable to find sheet music for the solos he heard on records, Schnyder had to transcribe them himself, note for note. After high school, he ventured to the Berklee College of Music in Boston because he couldn’t find a suitable jazz school in Europe.
As Schnyder packed more and more into his repertoire — his Segerstrom set list includes his own work as well as that of Ellington and Jimi Hendrix — he grew to appreciate how all composers, even the ones he studied as a child, draw from diverse sources.
“If you look at Bach, there was no music at his time that he didn’t use,” Schnyder said. “That’s why it’s great, and why it will be great 2,000 years from now.”
From swing to Strauss
Thursday through Saturday at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Schnyder’s trio, which includes Taylor as well as pianist Kenny Drew Jr., will have the spotlight. In the second half, Ellington’s band — which has continued since its founder’s death in 1974 — will play some of its signature tunes: “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Satin Doll,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and others.
Sunday afternoon, conductor Carl St.Clair will host “Duke Ellington Revealed” with the orchestra, giving a guided tour through Ellington’s music. That evening, listeners will get another look at Schnyder as well: The 1926 German silent film “Faust” will screen with a live score performed by the composer-in-residence’s trio.
Schnyder, who wrote the score in 1999 on a commission from the city of Frankfurt, has performed it more than 20 times by his count, but the Segerstrom performance will be its West Coast premiere. To complement the film, which tells the story of a man who makes a pact with the devil for fortune, Schnyder delved into German musical history, combining his own work with themes from Schubert, Strauss and others.
Schnyder’s hope is that the combination of film and music will resonate emotionally even with those who don’t know the source material.
“It’s like two poets telling the same story or trying to describe the same feeling, and then you transcribe the two poems at the same time,” he said. “Obviously, the words don’t match, but you create the same feeling.”
If You Go
What: American Composers Festival
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 650 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; “Duke Ellington Revealed” Classical Connections show at 3 p.m. Sunday; “Faust” screening at 7 p.m. Sunday (all events in the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall except “Faust,” which is in the Samueli Theater)
Cost: $25 to $185 for regular shows; $25 to $95 for “Duke Ellington Revealed"; $30 for “Faust”
Information: (714) 556-2787 or https://www.scfta.org