Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd=piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd=English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd=bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd=contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4, trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (shaker, conga drum, wind chimes, cymbals, vibraphone, maracas, claves), 2 alto saxophones, 2 tenor saxophones, baritone saxophone, piano, rhythm bass, drum set, strings, and solo vocal
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 22, 2022, Thomas Wilkins conducting
About this Piece
By the early 1960s, the emerging genre of “sacred jazz,” which blended traditional religious musical forms and themes with the language of jazz, saw some of its most ambitious and celebrated compositions. Where John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme soared as an epic free-form poem of praise, others looked to recast the traditional mass as a jazz idiom—most notably the still under-celebrated Mary Lou Williams as well as Joe Masters, Vince Guaraldi, and Eddie Bonnemère.
Decades earlier, jazz had at best a spotty relationship with the church, written off alongside the blues by many as “the devil’s music.” Though not having the same Faustian deal-at-the-crossroads reputation perpetuated by the likes of bluesman Robert Johnson, jazz was the soundtrack of Saturday-night establishments that might thin Sunday morning’s flock.
Despite that, many in jazz shared a deep faith. Duke Ellington’s mother took him to two services each Sunday, both at her Baptist church and to that of his Methodist father. Ellington’s friend and biographer Derek Jewell tells a story of the adult Duke coming home after work and reading the Bible in his bathtub until the water turned cold.
That faith came through in many of his compositions including “Come Sunday” from Black, Brown and Beige, and the great Mahalia Jackson’s recording of that tune inspired Rev. C. Julian Bartlett and Rev. John S. Yaryan to write to Ellington and ask him to create a concert to celebrate the opening of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Ellington initially refused out of fears he was not a suitable choice but would eventually agree and premiere the first of three concerts in 1965.
In his foreword to that premiere, Ellington grapples openly with his worry that some might doubt the sincerity of his chosen form of musical worship. “God has total understanding… and there is no language that God does not understand.” Ellington also cites a short story by Anatole France about a juggler who could not play an instrument and instead accompanied his worship with juggling. “I believe that no matter how highly skilled a drummer or saxophonist might be, that if this is the thing he does best, and he offers it sincerely from the heart in—or as the accompaniment to—his worship, he will not be unacceptable because of lack of skill or of the instrument upon which he makes his demonstration, be it pipe or tom-tom.”
What emerged was not in the form of a jazz mass (perhaps owing to Ellington’s protestant upbringing compared to the converted Catholicism of Mary Lou Williams), but rather a series offering praise and prayer, some sung, some even danced, and others wordless music settings of Biblical texts. Ellington revised and added to the original Sacred Concert with two other recordings in 1968 and 1973. Speaking to Derek Jewell just before the 1965 premiere, Ellington said, “This music is the most important thing I’ve ever done or am ever likely to do. This is personal, not career. Now I can say out loud to all the world what I’ve been saying to myself for years on my knees.” —Ricky O’Bannon