Jazz for Jesus: Selections from Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts

I’m not the first to bring folks attention to the small “c” catholicity of Jazz. Hopefully, I won’t be the last. There may even be a big “C” version of it, which I will spotlight in future Music for Mondays posts over the next few weeks.

For this weeks MfM post though, I want to give you a taste of what Duke Ellington proclaimed to be “the most important thing I’ve done.” He composed and arranged three volumes of what he called “sacred concert music” and he performed, recorded, and released them as albums in 1965, 1968, and 1973. I reckon the Lord called him to share His story thorough the Duke’s musical talents before calling him home in 1974.

Between those years the concerts were performed all over the world in churchs, and in auditoriums too. I doubt if any were hosted by the Catholic Church, but I have no idea really. Over on Youtube, though, I found some great clips of the Duke himself playing one of his improvisations that made it onto the second album. I also found a couple of selections to share with you from a recent live performance of several of his sacred music pieces by the Duke Orchestra conducted by Laurent Mignard.

And away we go with minimal liner notes, because frankly I’m just learning this stuff as I go. Gunther Schuller, an American composer, conductor, horn player, author, historian, and masterful jazz musician in his own right, says this about Duke Ellington,

Ellington composed incessantly to the very last days of his life. Music was indeed his mistress; it was his total life and his commitment to it was incomparable and unalterable. In jazz he was a giant among giants. And in twentieth century music, he may yet one day be recognized as one of the half-dozen greatest masters of our time.

After enjoying the following selections, I think you’ll heartily agree with Gunther too. Let’s get started, shall we?

The Shepherd (Who Watches Over the Night Flock). This track is off of Ellington’s second Sacred Concert album, and was the sixth track. I share it first though because it is great footage of him actually playing this piece in a documentary about jazz improvisation by Norman Granz. Special guest is the artist Juan Miró, and some of his visually stunning artwork.

According to the video liner notes, Miró welcomes Duke Ellington and his trio at Fondation Maeght, St.Paul de Vence (France), July 27, 1966. Performers: Duke Ellington (piano), John Lamb (bass), Sam Woodyard (drums)

As I mentioned at the outset, Ellington passed into eternity in the year of Our Lord, 1974 (May 24). As such, this music hasn’t been performed much over the years. A Tavis Smiley piece on NPR back in 2004 mentioned that one of the reasons for the paucity of performances is the sheer magnitude of the number of artists needed to do his compositions justice. This is where the “Duke centric” work of bands dedicated to sharing his compositions comes to the fore.

What follows is the great performance of the Duke Orchestra conducted by Laurent Mignard, and backed up by the vocals of the Gregory Hopkins’ Harlem Jubilee Singers. I dare you not to like these selections. Let’s get started with a prayer, shall we?

The Lord’s Prayer. The pianist, is Phillipe Milanta, and he can certainly jingle the keys, ya’ll. All the other intruments, vocal and otherwise, are played to perfection as well.

Freedom. I played trombone in 6th grade, but that is about as far as I was able to go. But I can appreciate a good trombonist, like this fellow, for sure. And I’m all-in for the concept of freedom as well. Especially when expressed as sublimely as this.

Come Sunday. Where we’re served up the Golden Rule and these thoughts too,

I believe God is now, was then, and always will be.
With God’s blessing we can make it through eternity.


Praise God and Dance (Part II). Looks like it’s getting late, but no need for a cappuccino. This one makes me wish I had been in Vienna to see the show. What a great way to end the evening, huh?

Well I’ve eaten up your entire lunch hour, haven’t I? We’re both out of time for now, but I hope you enjoyed Duke Ellington’s sacred side as much as I did. Next time around, the jazz will be Catholic to boot. Until then, have a great week.

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