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Duke Ellington at the Mosque

Program, Duke Ellington Sacred Music Concert, Richmond, 1968

Late in his career, jazz great Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (1899–1974) composed three "Sacred Concerts," longer works made up of vocal and instrumentalpieces stemming from a religious theme. First performed at Grace (Episcopal) Cathedral in San Francisco in 1965, Ellington went on to reprise the concerts in 1968, and again in 1973. During the 1968 series, Ellington performed in Richmond at what was then known as the Mosque Auditorium (now, the Landmark Theater) on 8 November, accompanied by the choir of the Fifth Street Baptist Church. The Library of the Virginia Historical Society has several items related to the event.

Ellington merged components of jazz, blues, gospel, classical music, and choral expression in the arrangements, which were performed by his jazz orchestra and a full chorus. Setting Christian ideals to a varied score allowed Ellington's devout beliefs to come to the fore in both the music and in the subsequent publicity, as he openly discussed his earnest intentions with a somewhat skeptical press. It is perhaps unsurprising that in the tumultuous year of 1968 some critics found Ellington's religious direction to be either disingenuous or a bald advertisement for organized religion.

This music is the most important thing I’ve ever done or am ever likely to do.
Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington

But Ellington insisted otherwise: "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."

This is part of our Take a Closer Look series. This regular feature offers a behind-the-scenes view of some of our hidden treasures in our library and what they reveal about our shared past.

Program, Duke Ellington Sacred Music Concert, Richmond, 1968 Enter Fullscreen More information
Program, Duke Ellington Sacred Music Concert, Richmond, 1968
The program included Ellington's explanation of the inspiration for the concerts. Ellington's related that "I think of myself as a messenger boy, one who tries to bring messages to people, not people who have never heard of God, but those who were more or less raised with the guidance of the Church. Now and then we encounter people who say they do not believe. I hate to say that they are out-and-out liars, but I believe they think it fashionable to speak like that." (VHS call number: ML410 E44 D86 1968)
Program, Duke Ellington Sacred Music Concert, Richmond, 1968 Enter Fullscreen More information
Program, Duke Ellington Sacred Music Concert, Richmond, 1968 [page 2]
Page two of the program included autographs of many of the soloists. (VHS call number: ML410 E44 D86 1968)
Program, Duke Ellington Sacred Music Concert, Richmond, 1968 Enter Fullscreen More information
Program, Duke Ellington Sacred Music Concert, Richmond, 1968
The Progressive Matrons of the Fifth Street Baptist Church sponsored the Duke Ellington Sacred Concert in Richmond in 1968. The handwritten notation relates that "5th St. Church Choir will accompaniment"; Fifth Street Baptist Church remains active in Richmond today. (VHS call number: Broadside 1968: 4)
Duke Ellington Sacred Music Broadside, 1968 Enter Fullscreen More information
Duke Ellington Sacred Music Broadside, 1968
More slickly produced, this broadside includes a photograph of Duke Ellington. Reflecting the broad appeal of the performance, tickets were to be sold in predominantly African American Jackson Ward at Barky's Records and Anderson's Grill, but also at the white-owned department stores Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads. (VHS call number: Broadside 1968: 7)
Press Kit, Duke Ellington Sacred Concert series, 1968 Enter Fullscreen More information
Press Kit, Duke Ellington Sacred Concert series, 1968
By 1968, Duke Ellington's skills as a promoter were well-honed. This press kit detailed the myriad steps that local sponsors should take to ensure that the concert received adequate publicity and attendance. Ellington advised that sponsors should get in touch with local disc jockeys, "call all newscasters on TV and radio," and "contact the most important person in your area to arrange for a photograph of him buying the first pair of tickets." (VHS call number: ML410 E44 D87 1968)
Program, Duke Ellington Sacred Music Concert, Richmond, 1968
Program, Duke Ellington Sacred Music Conce
Program, Duke Ellington Sacred Music Concert, Richmond, 1968
Program, Duke Ellington Sacred Music Conce
Program, Duke Ellington Sacred Music Concert, Richmond, 1968
Program, Duke Ellington Sacred Music Conce
Duke Ellington Sacred Music Broadside, 1968
Duke Ellington Sacred Music Broadside, 196
Press Kit, Duke Ellington Sacred Concert series, 1968
Press Kit, Duke Ellington Sacred Concert s

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