Sting, Simon, Ellington Students: Magical Night at Strathmore

I was coming home in a cab to get ready to attend the annual Series of Legends concert to benefit the Duke Ellington School of the Arts at the Music Center of Strathmore, featuring rock-pop legends Sting and Paul Simon yesterday.

Guess what was playing on the cab radio?

“Everything Little Thing She Does Is Magic” by you know who. And if you don’t, too bad for you. I thought, what could possibly go wrong? The answer to that question is the tag line to the story about the woman who once come up to the late uber-movie star Cary Grant, known for his eye-candy smooth class, and asked: “Do you know what’s wrong with you?” A quizzical Grant asked, “I don’t know, what?” ‘’Absolutely nothing.”

There was absolutely nothing wrong with the night which was an affirmation for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, the ongoing parade of gifted young artists—dancers, musicians, singers in groups and as individuals–for its co-founder (with Mike Malone) Peggy Cooper Cafritz, for an exhilarating demonstration of star power when it engages with and for a worthy cause, as Sting and Simon, who are touring together so ably showed.

This was a high-end fundraiser for the District’s pre-eminent arts school, which will help fund the school’s major renovation, with attendees filling the grand foyer of the Music Hall at Strathmore in a VIP reception and the acoustically renowned and beautifully designed hall for a stirring and few songs left unsung. The event raised at least $1.2 million for the high school at 35th and R Streets.

This was the Seventh Annual Performance Series of Legends fundraiser, which began in 2006 with comedian Dave Chappelle –an Ellington alum—headlining. Other stars that followed included another Ellington alumn, opera star Denyce Graves, Earth, Wind & Fire, Smokey Robinson and Patti LaBelle. Stevie Wonder was an early headliner, and he was scheduled to appear with Sting and Simon, but could not appear because of the death of a close relative.

That was just about the only sad note in an evening when donors, well wishers, media, culture mavens and politicians mingled in the grand foyer, the media at one point setting up a kind of Sting watch (can you call it a Sting sting?), until he appeared from the very VIP Comcast Circles Lounge with donors, smiling broadly and walking fast. (See The Georgetowner’s photo.)

In the foyer, politicians and elected officials mingled and schmoozed—Democratic congressman Chris Van Hollen, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, retiring Virginia congressman Jim Moran, and a raspy-voiced D.C. At-large Councilman David Catania, an independent, who had just announced that he would be running for mayor of D.C. in the November general election.

Inside, the night turned into something truly special, on a stage packed with the youthful talent of the Duke Ellington band and chorus, and guitarist Reilly Martin, who played with the verve that could give some of the pros on stage a run for their money.

Duke Ellington School CEO Rory Pullens, beaming with pride, announced, “You know what Sting said? He said those kids blew me away.”

The kids were always there. They’re these tumblers, that guitar player, the hand-clapping choir which achieved gospel tones, all the young girls and boys playing trumpets, oboes, flutes, the French horn, clarinets, drums, violins and such. Among them might be future stings, future song stylists, rappers, tap dancers, classical musicians, opera stars and jazz singers and players, rock and rollers and divas.

“We’re in the presence of the future,” Sting acknowledged, and then began a set, later joined by Simon, that erased any doubt that this might be one of those perfunctory, well-meaning musical efforts that would leave you parched for something better.

It doesn’t get much better than this. With Duke Ellington student dancers, singers and musicians, setting the stage with “Demolition Man” and “Synchronicity.”

Sting—aka Gordon Matthew Thomas Summer—looking lean and clean in dark-wear and precisely little left short hair, showed himself as the ever-growing and versatile stylist that he is, beginning with a crowd-pleasing “Englishman in New York,” one of his first solo efforts after becoming a super-star with the 1980s group, “The Police.” This one was—as is much of his work now—infused with world stylings and sounds, a little bit of Reggae, a little exotic, full of a wistful kind of bounce. He sang the Middle East-infused “Desert Rose” (some of it in Arabic), “Seven Days” and the classic Police song “Every Breath You Take.” At one point, manically and a little maniacally beautiful with his playing, electric fiddle player Peter TIckell wowed the crowd into a standing ovation.

Out came Paul Simon, once of Simon and Garfunkel, the soulful inspiration of imagination for a generation of 60s outsiders—“Hello darkness my old friend” goes one song, “Mrs. Robinson….Jesus loves you more than you can know”—came out, small but casting a huge musical shadow. They sang the Simon and Garfunkel classic, “The Boxer.” Simon then sang Sting’s “Fragile.”

“I suppose you know Paul and I are touring together,” Sting said. (The two will be at the Verizon Center tonight.)

“I remember when we were just starting out, jumping into cars and playing half-empty bars all over America and loving it,” he said and asked Simon to exit the stage. Sting sang Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” and made it his own “… We’ve all come to look for America.” He sang The Police’s “Message in a Bottle” and everyone standing, dancing and singing.

Then, everyone came back on stage. They sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” one by one, and then with the Duke Ellington Chorus, and then Sting again taking a lyric, and making the song more robust, stirring, a little more brave.

And then, like you might have wanted, they closed it out with “Every Breath You Take.” And everyone again was standing, dancing and singing.

Departing, I thought of the lyrics: “Everything you do is magic. Every little thing she does turns me on.” The kids, Sting, Simon. Every little thing they did was: Magic.

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