Duke Ellington rehearses for a Sacred Concert at Great St. Mary’s Church, Cambridge, 1967 (Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo).

Like that of many monumental artists throughout history, the legacy of Duke Ellington is one of contradiction. As serious, skillful, and ambitious a composer as American music has ever known, he was just as capable of turning out myriad offhand tunes that reveled in their informal charm. If spirituality infuses some of his most personal pieces, sensuality suffuses the wider catalog of his work. He was a natural charmer who could win over any audience; he could also be an aloof and self-serving friend and lover. But a legion of Duke devotees wouldn’t have it any other way. For it’s his embrace of life in all its abundance and inconsistency that feeds his gorgeous command of sound, the tonal elements he transformed into music as vital and communicative today as it was when it was first produced during the past century.

It’s been fifty years since the 1973 performance of Ellington’s “The Majesty of God,” the third in a series of “Sacred Concerts” he initiated in the mid to late 1960s and the last major fully completed work of his lifetime. (Ellington would die less than a year later, in May 1974.) The Third Sacred Concert is an authentic demonstration of his attempt to express the spiritual aspect of his art. Ellington was raised in the warm embrace of family, and religion—if not strict religious practice—remained important throughout his life. He was said to have read the Bible thoroughly numerous times, and to turn to Scripture when in need of consolation. He counted clergymen among his friends and found comfort in spiritual reflection. Important spiritually inspired pieces include his enduring hymn “Come Sunday,” composed in 1942 for the extended work Black, Brown, and Beige, which was heard at the Ellington orchestra’s first Carnegie Hall concert in 1943.

“The Majesty of God” may not be an indisputable high point of Ellington’s career, but it is shaped by many of his trademark musical felicities—more than enough to warrant attention a half-century later. Consisting of seven segments, it includes original lyrics by Ellington along with passages from the Old and New Testaments and the Lord’s Prayer. The basic message is one of ecumenical praise, while “Ain’t Nobody Nowhere Nothin’ Without God” is Ellington’s unabashed testament of faith. Yet from first note to last, this is Duke Ellington music—that is, it doesn’t depart from his characteristic melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and tonal universe. It delights while conveying deep emotions and it swings. Anyone unfamiliar with the English language yet conversant with Ellington’s music would recognize it immediately as his. You might not steer an Ellington novice straight to “The Majesty of God.” But those already acquainted with Ellington’s work will find it an instructive piece that furthers understanding of how he achieved wondrous effects by utilizing the resources at hand.

Anyone unfamiliar with the English language yet conversant with Ellington’s music would recognize it immediately as his.

Ellington’s music can’t be separated from his valued collaborators, the dazzling musicians whom he nurtured and built his sound around. By the time of the Third Sacred Concert, nearly all the significant players from Ellington’s late-period band were gone, including alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, trombonist Lawrence Brown, and clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton, while tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves and trumpeter Cootie Williams were unable to attend the concert. Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s invaluable co-composer and arranger, had died in 1967. Yet even without his star soloists and creative partner, Ellington pulls it off. Elements integral to the record’s success were guest soloist Alice Babs, whose soaring soprano brings additional dimension to the words; baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, who had devoted a lifetime to Ellington, and whose horn provided the ballast for the band; Ellington’s own piano work, as underrated as it was inimitable; and the splendor of his orchestra, which, despite the missing personnel and sparing use in this work, could still sound authoritative and regal, thanks to Ellington’s skillful writing and arranging.

You come away from “The Majesty of God” certain that its composer was sincere in his beliefs, open to the inspiration of unguarded spiritual thought. Yet he was no less open to what the world offered up—good, bad, and everything in between. Those who admire Ellington’s music sense that this was a man who loved people, and food, and sex, and romance, and travel, and community, and the multitude of other pleasures life offers. You can also hear him responding to the political, social, and existential tribulations that Black Americans have had to endure. Parsing the supposedly specific images that Ellington claimed as musical correlatives in his strictly instrumental works can be more obfuscating than illuminating. Is “Harlem Air Shaft” an overview of communal life in uptown New York? Is “Reminiscing in Tempo” a portrait of his deceased mother? With Ellington, it’s always dangerous to confuse inspiration with literal interpretation. But his creativity was obviously fueled by whatever he encountered. Read whatever you want into his expressive music, it all comes out the same. Ellington’s art elevates the spirit, mind, and body.

It’s not enough, assuming that this is still true, that he remains a famous name, or that he’s associated with a few classic songs: “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Solitude,” and “Mood Indigo” among them. Ellington’s oeuvre is far vaster. As critic Gary Giddins says in Jazz (written with Scott DeVeaux),

In what category do you place a pianist, bandleader, composer, and arranger who created an ensemble unlike any other and wrote practically every kind of Western music other than grand opera—from ragtime to rock’n’roll, from blues to ballet, from stage and film scores to tone poems, oratorios, and sacred concerts, not to mention works for instrumental combinations from piano-bass duets to symphony orchestra. A proudly black artist, whose subject matter never departed for long from African American history and life, he also wrote about the full breadth of America and much of the world.

A career that stretches from the early 1920s to the early ’70s may seem daunting, but streaming services make exploration far easier. (“The Majesty of God” doesn’t show up on Apple or Spotify, but it’s available on YouTube.) Like the man, the music is multidimensional. He found room for virtually every jazz idiom that blossomed in his lifetime, yet the miracle is how little of his work sounds imitative or generic, and how much is stamped with a fingerprint-like individuality. How Ellington managed to work so closely with so many extraordinary musicians and to have all of them speak his specific language is a gift that still can’t be explained. But maybe we should just be thankful for it. In this still-new millennium, Ellington’s art is as vivid as ever, and perhaps even more necessary.

Steve Futterman has written about jazz for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Rolling Stone and for the past three decades has contributed the weekly "Jazz and Standards" listings for the New Yorker.

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Published in the May 2023 issue: View Contents
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