Gabe Meline, senior editor of KQED Arts & Culture, wrote an in-depth piece in 2015 for the 50th anniversary of Ellington’s first Sacred Concert, staged and performed in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral on Sept. 16, 1965.
The concert can be attributed to Grace Cathedral's dean at the time, C. Julian Bartlett, a white reverend who brought with him from his native New Orleans a love of jazz and who approached Ellington with the commission -- not for a jazz mass per se, but for an extended liturgical work. After their meeting in North Beach, Ellington enthusiastically got to work.
“I recognized this as an exceptional opportunity,” Ellington wrote, recalling the event in his 1973 autobiography Music Is My Mistress. “'Now I can say openly,' I said, 'what I have been saying to myself on my knees.'”
Ellington padded the program with music from his previous piece Black, Brown & Beige (what he described as “a tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America”), and battling what he admitted was “a certain amount of trepidation,” composed new material for Grace Cathedral drawing on the Bible, starting with its first four words. The six-syllable phrase “In the Beginning God” was woven throughout the concert, either sung by the Herman McCoy choir or played; Bunny Briggs tap-danced to a composition titled “David Danced Before the Lord With All His Might;” Jon Hendricks delivered hip spoken word; Ellington sidemen Paul Gonsalves, "Cat" Anderson and Johnny Hodges shined; and a young singer named Esther Marrow sang the Ellington composition “Come Sunday.”
As the San Francisco Chronicle noted at the time, Ellington shared the stage with some 75 other performers.
Enjoy the full KQED broadcast of the San Francisco Sacred Concert below.
For the 50th anniversary, the young woman discovered by Ellington, Queen Esther Marrow, would perform again. The Duke first escorts Marrow to the microphone at the 12:40-minute mark above.
Queen Esther Marrow was born in Newport News, Virginia. She began her career at the age of 22, when her talent and vocal gifts were discovered by Duke Ellington and made her debut as a featured artist in his "Sacred Concert" world tour. Marrow and Ellington formed a long-life friendship during the next four years while touring together. Queen has since performed with such musical greats as Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea and Bob Dylan.
In 1965, Marrow became active in the civil rights movement when she performed in Dr. Martin Luther King’s World Crusade. There she met her lifetime idol Mahalia Jackson, with whom she would later share the stage. Other political activists on the crusade were Jesse Jackson, Sidney Poitier and Dr. Ralph Abernathy.
In this PBS profile, Marrow tells the story of how she met the man who launched her career.
In the wake of the anniversary celebration, Marrow also shared potent images contrasting both performances.
As a major fan of vocalese master Jon Hendricks, I have listened to his interpretation of “In the Beginning God”—found at 15:30 in the KQED broadcast—too many times to count.
In the beginning God
In the beginning God
In the beginning God
No Heaven, no Earth
In the beginning
In the beginning
In the beginning God [...]
No mountains, no valleys
No main streets and no back alleys
No night, no day, no bills to pay
No glory and no gloom
No poverty, no Cadillacs
No sand traps and no mud packs
No pedestrians, no carriage trade
No body guards, no credit cards
No conference calls, no TV commercials
No headaches and no aspirins
No heroes, no zeros
No naughty, no nice
No limit, no budget
No bottom, no topless
No cows, no bulls
No Barracuda, no buffalo
No birds, no bees, no beetles
No symphony, no jive, no Gemini five
No ten, nine, six or eight
No men trying to fill an inside straight
No applause, no critique
No amateur, no professional
No questions, no answers
No singers and no dancers
No varied and sundry, ranting and raging
Hither and yon from pillar to pot
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The second Sacred Concert was held over two years after the first in New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Jan. 19, 1968.
The second concert was broadcast as well—in color!
One of the most memorable moments in the New York performance was a solo by trumpeter Charles Melvin "Cootie" Williams.
James Nadal profiled Williams for All About Jazz in 2013.
Throughout his years with Ellington, and on many occasions under his own name, Cootie consistently displayed a vigorous command of his instrument. Whether playing the muted colourful compositions of Ellington, or playing in the full-throated manner that reflected his admiration for Louis Armstrong, the distinctive trumpet playing of Cootie Williams remains one of the lasting joys of jazz.
He was born Charles Melvin Williams, in Mobile, Alabama, on 10 July 1911. As a small child, he played various instruments in school bands but then took up the trumpet on which he was largely self-taught. He was barely into his teens when he began playing professionally. Among the bands with which he played in these years, the mid 1920s, was the band run by the family of Lester Young. He continued to play in territory bands, mainly in the south, including that led by Alonzo Ross. It was with this band that he played in New York in early 1928, choosing almost at once to quit the band and move on to higher profile engagements. In that same summer, he recorded with James P. Johnson, then with Chick Webb and Fletcher Henderson, and early the following year he was hired by Ellington to replace Bubber Miley. This, Cootie's first spell in Ellington’s orchestra, was to last for 11 years.
As hinted above, Williams would leave Ellington to form his own band but return to Ellington in 1962 after a 22-year absence, continuing to play with the orchestra even after Ellington’s 1974 death.
Thomas Cunniffe, the founder, editor, and principal writer of Jazz History Online, provides some additional background on the second concert, including the death of Ellington’s composer, pianist, lyricist, arranger, and collaborator Billy Strayhorn.
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This concert also brought the introduction of Ellington’s new Swedish vocalist, Alice Babs.
Billy Strayhorn was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in early 1964. Even under the supervision of Ellington’s personal physician, Arthur Logan, his health went on a downward spiral. His appearance with Lena Horne at the First Sacred Concert in December 1965 was the last time he played in public. Ellington couldn’t stand to see Strayhorn in the hospital, but called him on the phone every day. Moreover, he encouraged Strayhorn to continue writing for the band. Strayhorn’s emotionally wrenching “Blood Count” was sent to the band from the hospital. It would be his final composition. When Strayhorn died on May 31, 1967, Ellington was on the road in Reno. He rushed back to New York for Strayhorn’s funeral, and wrote an eloquent tribute to his friend which included Strayhorn’s Four Freedoms, a set of moral codes which found a place in Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert. Strayhorn’s passing was an obvious sign to Ellington about his own mortality, and without anyone to take Strayhorn’s place, Ellington knew that he was the only one to write new music for the band. Ellington recorded a tribute album to Strayhorn in September 1967—the extraordinary “…And His Mother Called Him Bill”—and then he set to work writing an entirely original set of new sacred music.
No one could replace Strayhorn, of course, but Ellington built his Second Sacred Concert around the talents of a superb musician who would give new voice to his music. That musician was the vocalist Alice Babs. For those who may be unaware of her, Babs could be considered the Swedish version of Julie Andrews. Like Andrews, Babs first caught the public’s attention as a teenager, she was blessed with an astounding voice and a wide vocal range, and she promoted her sunny and optimistic demeanor through a series of film, radio and television appearances. She performed and recorded classical works, folk songs and pop music, but Babs’ greatest talent was as a jazz singer. She had unerring pitch, perfect English diction, and was an outstanding scat singer. Ellington could put any music in front of her, and she would sight-read it without error.
The two first met in February 1963, when Ellington was booked to film a television show in Sweden. The producers wanted to have a local singer perform with the Ellington band, so they handed Ellington a pile of records by leading Swedish artists for him to audition. All it took was a quick listen to Babs’ 1959 LP “Alice and Wonderband” for Ellington to make his decision. Once the special was completed, Ellington told Babs, “We should make a record together”. Babs was flattered at the offer—she had been an Ellington fan since she was 12 years old—but was completely surprised when Ellington called three weeks later, asking her to fly to Paris in the coming days to record. The resulting album, “Serenade to Sweden” was a rewarding collaboration highlighted by Babs’ exquisite version of “Come Sunday”. Perhaps the memory of that rendition convinced Ellington to hire her to sing his new sacred music. While Babs performed the Second and Third Sacred Concerts many times, she was unable to tour extensively with the band, owing to her own career and family commitments. When she wasn’t available, Ellington said he had to hire three vocalists to take her place.
Watch Babs sing the wordless “T.G.T.T (Too Good To Title).”
Babs would join Ellington for the third Sacred Concert, which was held at London’s Westminster Abbey on Oct. 24, 1973. It was United Nations Day, and so U.N. Chairman Sir Colin Crowe introduced the show, held just seven months before Ellington joined the ancestors. This show opened with “The Lords Prayer, My Love” sung by Babs, and closed with “The Majesty of God.” The concert featured notable performances from the John Alldis Choir, conducted by Roscoe Gill Jr.
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The United Kingdom’s National Jazz Archive has a wonderful 1974 interview Ellington did with Les Tomkin for Crescendo, all about his sacred music. The Duke made it clear that writing these concerts did not in any way conflict with his jazz work, discussed his conversations with theologians, and signed off with an entreaty for Tomkin to “tell all your lovely readers that we do love them madly, please. God bless.”
Enjoy the audio of the third Sacred Concert below.
While this weekend brings holidays for many people of multiple faiths, I don’t think you have to be religious to be uplifted by this “sacred” music; as Ellington noted in the opening of the third concert, the theme of the music was “love.”
Join me in the comments for even more Ellington, and orchestras and soloists who are performing his sacred works today. Additionally, to celebrate the second anniversary of “Black Music Sunday,” I’ll also be posting links to previous stories in the series that readers may have missed in the last two years.
As always, please feel free to post music that lifts you up in these trying times. Thanks again for being part of the Black Music Sunday family of listeners.