By Mark Harvey – The fall of 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts. These important presentations were significant formulations of the composer’s evolving personal and social religiosity, influenced by the intersections of religion, culture, and civil rights. Further, these works are also abiding testaments to the creativity and deep meaning of African American cultural expression.

Duke Ellington

Listen to Duke Ellington’s “It’s Freedom” from the Sacred Concerts

The inaugural performance of A Concert of Sacred Music was given at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, on September 16, 1965. The occasion was the dedication of this new edifice with a roster of notable speakers that included United Nations General Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld, theologian Paul Tillich, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The East Coast premiere was held just over three months later, on December 26, at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York City. Two more complete Sacred Concerts followed with premieres in 1968 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and 1973 in Westminster Abbey respectively. Various compilations of the three programs have been presented during the past fifty years in the United States and Europe to great acclaim.

The Sacred Concerts did much to bring together African American and white audiences and faith communities, to further ecumenical conversations, and to extend the development of jazz as an important spiritual expression of the modern age. Further, these Sacred Concerts had resonances with movements for social justice and understanding. The inaugural 1965 concert had its origins in the 1963 musical titled My People, composed by Duke Ellington for the Century of Negro Progress Exposition in Chicago, a commemoration of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. This was premiered within weeks of The March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous I Have a Dream speech. Much of the music in My People was reprised in

A Concert of Sacred Music premiered in the same year as the Selma to Montgomery March and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The 1968 Second Sacred Concert included a substantial piece titled It’s Freedom. The 1973 Third Sacred Concert included a composition titled The Brotherhood, dedicated to the United Nations, and its premiere performance was presented by that organization on United Nations day.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ellington’s inaugural Sacred Concert, my Aardvark Jazz Orchestra performed selections from the First and Second Sacred Concerts on its 43rd Annual Christmas Concert held at Boston’s Emmanuel Church where Ellington presented his Second Sacred Concert in 1969.

Aardvark Christmas Concert 2015

Aardvark Chorale singing “It’s Freedom from Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert”

Aardvark Christmas Concert 2015a

Aardvark Jazz Orchestra’s Mark S. Harvey. (Photos courtesy of Nancy D. Kelly)

Editor’s note: To learn more about the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra and to read Grace-Mary Burega’s riveting review of Aardvark’s 43rd Annual Christmas Concert at the Emmanuel Church mentioned about click here.