In 1956, during the halcyon days of the Cold War and immediately after the McCarthy era, the US State Department began an interesting experiment. Take some of America’s top jazz talent and put them on tour to spread goodwill and music to the people’s of the world. They selected Dizzy Gillespie, a showman’s showman, to be the first “jazz ambassador.” He and his band toured Southern Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. The tour was a huge hit, and the great Diz would go on several more until his last for the State Department in 1973. Other artists sent abroad by the State Department include Quincy Jones, Louis Armstrong, and Dave Brubeck.
The State Department inducted Duke Ellington as a jazz ambassador in 1963 and sent him and his Famous Orchestra on their first sponsored tour in the fall of that year. In three months, the band visited Syria, Jordan, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. Ever charming, ever gracious, ever elegant, his audiences loved him madly, though the trip had its share of hiccups as well as triumphs. The most famous close call came in Baghdad. Shortly after arriving, a coup d’etat ensued forcing the band to make a hasty retreat. Afterwards, when asked about his experience in Baghdad, Ellington nonchalantly replied, “Baghdad? It was swinging!” The tour was to have included Ankara, Turkey, but the State Department cut it short before they could perform there because of the assassination of President John Kennedy.
Not long after the band’s triumphs in the Middle East and South Asia, they also performed in Japan.
All of these travels to places never visited by the much travelled Ellington inspired him and long-time writing partner Billy Strayhorn to compose new music influenced by some of the people and cultures they met. The orchestra rehearsed and recorded the results in 1966: The Far East Suite.
My first encounter with this celebrated work came in 1999. Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra arranged and performed their own interpretation of the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn masterpiece as part of the Ellington Centennial celebrations in 1999. The augmented the score with instruments from South and East Asia. My partner and I saw the premiere performance in Oakland. It blew us both away. But even their fine performance could not have prepared me for the wonders of the original 1966 recording by the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Music inspires stories for me. It paints images, suggests scenes. Far East Suite does all of this. The opening number, “Tourist Point of View,” finds a restless orchestra tuning up before baritone sax-player Harry Carney establishes the melody and then hands it over to Paul Gonsalves on tenor. He then becomes the tourist. The rest of the band places a tapestry before him where he wanders and encounters enticing colors, friendly people, unfamiliar animals, and ancient wonders. It’s a great way to start a trip.
Far East Suite does not seek to replicate the music of other lands. There are no tombaks or sitars mixed in with the reeds and horns — that innovation would have to wait for Anthony Brown and the Asian American Orchestra. Instead, Ellington and Strayhorn allowed the cultures they visited to influence their music, to offer hints and suggestions. So in a sense, the entire album offers a tourist’s point of view of the sights, sounds, and colors of the places traveled. At that time, though the jet age made traveling a lot more practical than when Ellington first went abroad in the early 1930s, the Middle East and South Asia were still far away, unfamiliar worlds.
A bird in Delhi inspired “Bluebird of Delhi,” the second track. Clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton copied its song while bassist John Lamb played its harsh raspberry sound. In the liner notes, compiled by long time Ellington associate Stanley Dance, the Maestro remarked that the bird sang whenever Billy Strayhorn was in the room, but made the raspberry sounds after he left. Perhaps the foreboding melody the brass section opened with mimicked the bird’s mercurial personality.
Ellington said of Isfahan, Iran, “It is a place where everything is poetry. They meet you at the airport with poetry and you go away with poetry.” The track “Isfahan” actually started life apart from the Suite. Strayhorn wrote it years earlier and called it “Elf.” But its sensual melody, realized by the master of sensuality Johnny Hodges, must have suggested poetry to Ellington, so it was included. The piece follows a long line of luscious tunes taylor-written by Ellington and Strayhorn for Hodges. And over the years it has become a jazz standard.
“Depk” was inspired by the dabke, a line dance popular from Lebanon to Iraq that’s usually performed at weddings. Though Ellington said he purposely avoided writing in odd time signatures, ala Brubeck, he clearly allowed the rhythm of this dance, with its “kick” in the sixth beat, to shine. Though he generally stuck to 4/4s and 3/4s in his composing throughout his career, Duke Ellington had a sublime sense of rhythm. Indeed, the true master can make 4s and 3s sound quite exotic.
“Mount Harissa” is one of the standout pieces, often cited by reviewers and covered by many musicians. For me, it tells a story. It starts with Ellington on piano, the learned master who was used to traveling the world but still capable of being fascinated by it. He is a master not jaded by all he has seen, but one still hungering to learn more. The chords suggest wonder and awe. After this tranquil beginning, the orchestra bursts to life with a lively, flowing, happy melody. Paul Gonsalves once again plays tour guide. It has a very continental sound. I envision jets with PanAm logos taking the newly minted jet-set crowd on new adventures. But then the Piano Player, as he liked to call himself, comes back with the introductory melody, adding a bit more hop to his step, to take out the piece. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous.
The next track is “Blue Pepper” or “Far East of the Blues.” This time Johnny Hodges comes back to do a stomping blues, with Ellington providing counterpoint. It was said that Ellington and Hodges were like brothers, sometimes fighting, but always maintaining great respect and affection for each other. It shows in their playing. Another great example of the musical dynamic tension between them is their performance of Hodge’s “Jeep’s Blues” from the famous Newport Jazz Festival concert in 1956.
Harry Carney returns in “Agra” to tell the tale of a man condemned to prison by his son after the former spent most of his kingdom’s resources to build a staggering edifice in honor of his deceased wife. We know the monument as the Taj Mahal. You can hear the man’s moans over his fate in Carney’s deep baritone, as well as his still-mourning heart over his long gone wife.
The liner notes describe the next track, “Amad,” as a “surging damascene sketch.” It’s certainly one of the most rhythmically interesting numbers. It actually starts with no rhythm at all, only a restless stirring, like the chaos of a rising sun over an already hot landscape. Then Ellington declares the pulse, largely relying on a single note, before the rest of the band launches into the melody. After the horns play with the tune a bit, the peerless reed section (Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Hamilton, Russell Procope, and Paul Gonsalves) play a stirring chorus before handing over to long-time trombonist Lawrence Brown to give the “call to prayer” solo. This is the performance which earned Brown my nickname for him: Soulful. The reeds return for another chorus, followed by the horns, before Soulful takes us out, with Rufus Jones providing some dynamic drumming in the background. All the while, Ellington reminds all of the pulse, the driving force, the life force, largely with a single note.
Some, including jazz critic Scott Yanow, describe this album as two pieces: the eight-part Suite followed by the final track, “Ad Lib on Nippon.” However, you divide it, the final piece of the album provides a beautiful summation of all that came before it. It goes through several sections and has many personalities, almost making it a suite in and of itself.
Ellington begins with a lengthy solo with bassist John Lamb playing in the background and drummer Rufus Jones adding rhythmic color with brushes on the cymbals. Then the Piano Player coalesces his loose playing into a driving melody which thrusts us into the heart of bustling Tokyo. Dashing cars, bicycles, neon lights, crowded sidewalks, the works.
Then the next section takes us away from the madding crowd. Over a few measures, Ellington softens the melody, plays with it, slows it down. We’re in a garden. We’re contemplating the majesty of Mt. Fuji in the distance. We’re sipping tea in proper, ritualistic fashion.
After more playfulness on the piano, the next section is introduced by Jimmy Hamilton in probably some of his finest recorded work. Hamilton and the band play off of each other in concerto fashion, his clarinet running, skipping, and jumping like a frolicking doe or the young, gurgling fount of a river. Maintaining its concerto structure, the piece ends with Hamilton playing a cadenza before the orchestra comes back for a final, punctuating chord. Eat your heart out, Mozart.
I’ll never forget the weekend I bought this CD. I listened to the whole thing, nonstop from beginning to end five times. It mesmerized and enchanted. My already considerable respect for Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn jumped astronomically.
Jazz critics and artists continue to praise the work to this day. Trumpet master Wynton Marsalis places the album on his list of essential jazz works. Others have covered some or all of the pieces. “Mt. Harissa” has followed “Isfahan” into becoming a jazz standard.
Ravi Shankar famously described ragas as “that which colors the mind.” This work is not a raga, but it still colors my mind with each listening, some 14 years after my first.
This would be the last major project completed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Shortly after its recording, Billy passed away. The next major release by the orchestra is a dedication to their late friend and colleague. And it is one of Ellington’s most personal and affecting works.
Next stop, . . .And his mother called him Bill.
Fallow my ass.