Duke Ellington: Interview 1
Duke Ellington: Interview 2

Duke Ellington (1899–1974)

Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington, pianist, composer and band leader, is a towering figure in the history of jazz. Born in Washington DC, Ellington was based in New York from the mid-1920s. He led the orchestra he founded in 1923 for the rest of his life.

Members of Ellington’s orchestra, such as saxophonists Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, are considered among the finest players. Some stayed with the orchestra for decades. Ellington wrote or collaborated on more than 1000 compositions. Many pieces, such as “Mood Indigo” and “In a Sentimental Mood”, have become standards, and were perfect for the 78-rpm format. A near 30-year collaboration with composer-arranger-pianist Billy Strayhorn produced further short classics, but also much longer compositions and suites, in itself an innovation.

Ellington cut his first eight records in 1924 and went on to record for most American companies of his era, leaving a vast legacy of work. He performed in and scored several films, starting with Black and Tan (1929), and including classics such as Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Paris Blues (1961). He also composed a handful of stage musicals.

Ellington was part of the Harlem Renaissance which began flowering in the 1920s, and enhanced his standing through engagements at the Cotton Club. He began touring Europe with his orchestra in the 1930s, making his debut at the London Palladium in 1933 to great acclaim. This was the first of many UK tours over several decades.

A pivotal jazz pioneer, Ellington will also be remembered for his eloquence and style.

Biography by Paul Kaufman


On sacred music

This second interview transcript features an interview by Les Tomkins on 1 December 1973 at The Congress Theatre Eastbourne in which Ellington talks about his sacred concerts.

You can read the original article in Crescendo, January 1974, pp6–7.


Duke Ellington: Interview 3

Duke Ellington: Interview 2

Image Details

Interview date 1st January 1974
Interview source Jazz Professional
Image source credit
Image source URL
Reference number
Forename Duke
Surname Ellington
Quantity 2

Interview Transcription

The Third Sacred Concert in Westminster Abbey

I think that actually this was the best Sacred Concert that we’ve ever done. I know it’s the best one I ever wrote. It’s just a pity that we couldn’t really do it complete with the perfection that we wanted to, owing to the fact that certain people came in when we were rehearsing and killed an hour–and–a–half with a lot of nonsense. What they didn’t know is, when you’ve got a new work, you’ve got to co–ordinate the choir and everything; the band had never played any of it before, you know. It was brand new—I did it specially for Westminster Abbey.

Oh, the choir was wonderful—absolutely magnificent, yeah. I’ve been very lucky with choirs. We had this beautiful choir down in Barcelona, Spain, about two or three years ago—boy, they were wonderful.

And, of course, over in France we have the Double Six Of Paris. Then Roscoe, the kid who was conducting—he’s got a very fine choir in Philadelphia, too.

We’re going to record it, and when we do, I think I’m going to use a little bit of what we already have with this choir, too. I’ll use both choirs, I think—this one and the choir in New York. Although we didn’t get a chance to do it all the way we would have done, what we’ve got can be used, perfectly.

And Alice Babs, of course, who is an impeccable musician—you know, you’d think she’d been singing it for ten years! The intervals are the thing. I mean, the range is not so much; what range is added, she does it herself. But the written intervals are considered a little awkward for singers—and particularly when you have to understand the words. No, I don’t think I gave her anything more adventurous than on the Second Concert. You can’t actually compare them in that way. I mean, in the one number, “The Beauty Of God”, you have “the beauty of God, the power of God, the sight of God, the light of God, the wonder of God, the majesty of God, and the splendour of God”—each one’s a different thing.

It’s not a new departure; we started this in 1965, you know. We started the whole trend in that direction. Only we just didn’t commercialise it too much. We would do it in churches and if they made money—crazy. If they didn’t, we’d give ‘em what they lost. And not only that; the churches always participated in record royalties, too—the churches who sponsored us, and so forth.

I don’t know if it has helped the spread of religion. You can’t take this on a world basis, because you don’t see the world. We see one city a day, something like that, and we see a part of that city in our audience. And there’ll be other people you meet afterwards and before, away from the concert hall—but you can’t tell what it is. But I know that when a girl comes to me, a girl who I’ve known a long time, and, after she’s seen the concert, she says: “Duke—you know, you made me put my cross back on.” Then I say: Well—I’m somewhere.” Something is being accomplished. If in, what—eight, nine years, I get one little girl put her cross back on, I’ve accomplished something, I think.

Does it conflict in any way with my jazz work? Well, I don’t believe in that. You see. . . as you know, the jazz word simply means “freedom of expression”, as far as I’m concerned. We stopped using it, I mean, in 1943. And it’s just like, in the Westminster concert, one of the songs is: “Every Man Prays In His Own Language, And There’s No Language God Does Not Understand.” So. . . we did the Lord’s Prayer—six different versions of our own. Alice Babs sang one in Swedish, and they’re all: “Our Father, who art in heaven hallowed be thy name. . .”—the same words. Even the instrumentals which were played, they’re all on the words of the Lord’s Prayer.

As for the way I used the choir—yes, they had great long things. We had the thing, “Freedom”—that in itself. . . there was about eight divisions of it. And then there’s “Something About Believing”, which was, I don’t know how long—with the big pay–off line down there at the end of it, which says: “The silliest thing I ever read was that somebody said: ‘God is dead’. And the mere mention of the first word automatically eliminates the second and the third.” That’s it, you know. I think these things win an argument. There’s no counter–argument to that. I mean, it’s there—if somebody wants to turn their head and ignore it, well, they do the same thing with the Bible. If they want to.

It depends upon how strong their interest is in the wrong direction.

But that’s not my business. I just say ‘em—and lots of people listen to ‘em. And the great theologians have acknowledged and recognised it as. . . to me, great things.

Like, the Rev. Yaryan, the man I call “my launching pad”, the man who invited me to do my first Sacred Concert in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco—he said a line back there in 1965, which I used this time. He says: “God is the three–letter word for love, and love is a four–letter word for God.” I used that in one of the songs—only I asked it as a question; I didn’t say it.

He has the authority; I don’t. He knows. A brilliant man.

It’s just like “Heaven”; in the Second Sacred Concert. After going through what we call normal rhyming poetry for the first twenty–four bars, then you get to the last eight and you say: “Well, look, man, something has to be said here, you know.” And I was up in Lake Tahoe in the middle of the night, and this thing just fell in my lap—just like that. Oh, some real strange things happen, you know, when you get mixed up in this. You say: “Well, I need a line here”—and boom! The title of the number is “Heaven”, and the line was: “Heaven to be is just the ultimate degree, to be.” And I begin to call up my theologian friends—Pastor Gensel, Rabbi Shapiro, Rev. Weicker, in various cities. And each one of ‘em rattled off. . . Pastor Gensel, he must have talked for forty–five minutes, long–distance, you know, telling me what the words I had said meant.

And Rabbi Shapiro—he went all the way back to “I AM” in the Ancient Bible. And Weicker, when I told him, he said: “Yeah!” and he hung up. Five minutes later, he called back, and he says: “Say that again. I want to record it.” These are the kind of things that happen.

Copyright © 1974, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.