Jazz Divas 2020: Sarah Moule Talks About Her Duke Ellington Obsession

Singer Sarah Moule will play the music of Duke Ellington as part of an upcoming show (3 April) at The Pheasantry in Chelsea.

Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke to Sarah to preview the show. For ticket info

Q: You will be performing at The Pheasantry (Chelsea) as part of the Jazz Divas 2020 series. What does it mean to you to be part of this series of shows?

A: I love performing at The Pheasantry in Chelsea, it’s a lovely room and one of London’s hidden gems. John Billett at JBGB Events has built up his Diva Series over a number of seasons so the audience know they can trust him to bring them quality music whether they are familiar with the artists or are being introduced to their music. It’s great to be amongst such a wonderful line-up of singers whom I admire too. 

Q: The show will be a celebration of Duke Ellington’s genius. Do you remember the first time you heard – and connected with – Duke’s work?

A: Billie Holiday singing Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me when I was a student was my introduction to Ellington. The songs are an inescapable part of the jazz repertoire. Ellington’s music was my first jazz obsession.

In the mid 1990s I put a show together of Ellington and Strayhorn songs for Norwich Festival and I’ve had an Ellington song in my live set ever since. I think obsession is an important part of learning this music. And with Ellington’s six decade career there’s a lifetime’s worth of material to immerse yourself in. 

Q: How has Duke’s work helped to inform your work and your life?

A: His approach to life was to rise above difficult situations and strive for excellence come what may. He believed in the power of music to affect people’s lives and that is a real inspiration for me. 

Q: How has your relationship to/connection with Duke’s work changed over the years?

A: The more I learn about his life the more I realise his significance as a cultural figure whose influence went far beyond the world of music.

Q: Is there a particular song by Duke that has significant personal meaning to you? 

A: The song I love most is A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing

It’s actually by Billy Strayhorn who was Ellington’s arranger and co-composer. Their work was almost impossible to tell apart. Ellington said of him: ‘he was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head and his in mine.’ The song makes me think of Georgia O’Keefe’s huge, sensual paintings of flowers. I love my garden so I totally get the idea of losing yourself in the contemplation of nature. It expresses a heightened appreciation of the beauty of flowers and I think it was Billy Strayhorn’s way of expressing his emotions. 

He was openly gay in the safe environment of the Ellington Orchestra at a time when it was not safe to be himself publicly so there’s a hidden poignancy about the lyric and the melody is just sublime.

Q: You will be performing with pianist Simon Wallace. Can you tell us about the on-stage dynamic you have?

A: I’m married to him. I think that tells you everything you need to know! 

Fortunately, he is a wonderful pianist and a real song lover, so it’s always very enjoyable working with him. He knows verses to songs that most singers aren’t even aware of. We’ve been working together for over 20 years now so we’ve managed to iron out some of the kinks (musically speaking) of working with your spouse but we both feel we’re still learning about music so it’s exciting!

Q: There is the promise of ‘some rare Ellington gems’ on the show. Can the audience expect a few surprises?

A: Yes! Simon played for the hip American cabaret singer BJ Ward (the voice of Thelma in Scooby Doo and Betty Rubble in The Flintstones) in a show about lyricist Marshall Barer.  He was one of the great undiscovered writers of shows, review songs and ‘special material’. Amongst his 3000 lyrics are those he wrote with Ellington for the ill-fated 1966 show Pousse Café which flopped on Broadway after three performances and the loss of half a million dollars.  

At The Pheasantry I’ll be singing a very beautiful ballad called C’est Comme C,a and a wry number about life and love called Let’s.

Q: And lastly, what are your hopes for the show and this celebration of Duke Ellington?

A: We hope that our show will inspire people to explore the wonderful treasure trove of Duke Ellington’s music.

Friday April 3rd Sarah Moule

The Songs of Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn with Simon Wallace – piano

Doors 7pm. Music 8.30pm. Tickets: £20

For more info

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