April 8, 2017


DUKE ELLINGTON'S FAITH (Ted Gioia, April 2017, First Things)

Yet there was another side of Duke Ellington, pious and even prim. "I'd be afraid to sit in a house with people who don't believe," he once remarked. "Afraid the house would fall down." Ellington's biographer Terry Teachout tells us that the bandleader engaged in "daily Bible study and private prayer in hotel and dressing rooms." Ellington's son, Mercer, has noted that his father was "so religious . . . anything that downed religion had to be wrong." The musician's sister, Ruth, went so far as to claim that the whole Ellington mystique was based on the "philosophy of life in which he profoundly believed, namely Christianity."

Ellington's religious sensibilities took on greater prominence in his music during his later years. At age fifty-eight, he invited gospel singer Mahalia Jackson to record with his band, and Ellington was so delighted with the resulting version of his hymn "Come Sunday," performed mostly unaccompanied, that he brought Jackson back to the studio the next day to sing it again--not for the record, but just for him. For this follow-up rendition, never released, Duke had the lights turned off in the studio, and required his band to sit quietly in attendance like parishioners in a darkened church.

Jackson herself later noted that no rehearsal was held for this collaboration with the famous bandleader, and when she requested more guidance on one track, he simply advised her: "Just open the Bible and sing." In his autobiography, Ellington admitted that "this encounter with Mahalia Jackson had a strong influence on me and my sacred music." Irving Townsend, Ellington's producer at the session, said, "Duke treated this first performance like a kind of divine revelation."

This new phase in Ellington's music reached its peak seven years later when he gave his first "Sacred Concert" at the newly completed Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. It's hard to exaggerate how much importance Ellington assigned to this event. A surviving film, available on YouTube, captures some of the music and behind-the-scenes activity of the concert. Ellington can be heard declaring that this is "the most important statement I've ever made."

Ellington would go on to present follow-up Sacred Concerts with new music at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York (1968) and at Westminster Abbey (1973). Ellington would die exactly five months after this last performance. He already knew he had cancer in both lungs when he mounted this final testimony to his faith, which was built around the theme of love.

Posted by at April 8, 2017 9:05 AM