Pete Mills

‘Songs & Sounds of the Harlem Renaissance’ in Columbus

Pete Mills and the Columbus Jazz Orchestra pay tribute to the artistic movement that made the Manhattan neighborhood a cultural hub following World War I.

Columbus Jazz Orchestra tenor saxophonist Pete Mills never tires of hearing Duke Ellington’s rendition of “Cotton Tail,” the sprightly tune the renowned jazz pianist and composer wrote in 1940.

“Whenever I hear that recording, it makes my heart happy and inspires me to practice my saxophone,” says Mills, who also teaches saxophone and improvisation and directs the jazz ensemble at Denison University in Granville. “That 3 1/2-minute piece is some of the best 3 1/2 minutes in music.”

On Jan. 18, Mills, along with other members of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, local and national artists and high-school musicians from the Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra, will present “Songs & Sounds of the Harlem Renaissance.” The 90-minute concert, which includes selections by Ellington, pays tribute to music composed during the famous artistic movement that made the Manhattan neighborhood a cultural hub following World War I before jazz swept the country.
“One could argue that the story of jazz can be written by studying the music written then,” Mills says. “The sound and the music continue to be major influences. So we thought it would be nice to cap Columbus’ year of celebrating this wonderful time in American history with a celebration of the music that came out of it, as well as composers who continue to be inspired by it.”

Mills, who’s producing the concert with Zach Compston, education director for Columbus’ Jazz Arts Group, admits the abundance of noteworthy songs created during the period make it difficult to whittle down the playbill to an hour and a half. Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway and Fats Waller are only a handful of the singers and songwriters who will be showcased along with Ellington.
“American jazz speaks to the soul of this country — the depth, the groove, the feeling, the rhythm,” Mills says. “It’s really one of the great gifts this country has given the world. Jazz is the ultimate democracy. Everyone contributes to it.”

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