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From the Club to the Cathedral: Revisiting Duke Ellington's Controversial 'Sacred Concert'

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Today, Duke Elington's consecration of Grace Cathedral is regarded as a landmark moment. But in 1965, it was near-scandalous. (Photo: Columbia Records)

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington registered thousands of original compositions, performed around the globe, scored Broadway shows and Hollywood movies, and dined with kings and presidents. A list of the honors and awards received by jazz’s most prolific artist could stretch from the stage to the balcony of the Apollo Theater in Harlem — and back.

And yet it was a concert given atop Nob Hill in San Francisco, in 1965, that Ellington called “the most important thing I’ve ever done.”

Today, Duke Elington’s consecration of Grace Cathedral is regarded as a landmark moment. But in 1965, hard as it is to imagine, it was near-scandalous.

The Duke Ellington band at Grace Cathedral, Sept. 17, 1965. (Photo courtesy Grace Cathedral)
The Duke Ellington band at Grace Cathedral, Sept. 17, 1965. (Photo courtesy Grace Cathedral)

Ellington’s ‘Concert of Sacred Music,’ which will be reprised this Thursday for its 50th anniversary presented by SFJAZZ, marked the highlight of a year-long ‘Festival of Grace’ for the opening of Grace Cathedral, which also included a jazz mass by the pianist Vince Guaraldi. According to Rebecca Nestle, Grace Cathedral’s cultural program manager, many protested the presentation of jazz from the altar.

“I know for a fact,” Nestle says, “that some of the priests who were organizing the Guaraldi mass got actual death threats.”


And although Ellington’s stature and elegance would seem to make a natural fit for the church, a short review in the San Francisco Chronicle the following morning noted the atmosphere of unease. Ellington’s band, according to the uncredited review, “appeared to leave many of the audience discomfited, nervous or edgy, not completely willing to accept the idea that the wild sound of a sax should pierce the austere heights of the Episcopal cathedral’s nave.”

As it turns out, the concert was filmed by a young public television station in San Francisco called KQED, in partnership with producer and Chronicle jazz critic Ralph Gleason. The footage evinces none of the surrounding controversy, nor any “discomfited” attendees in the overflow crowd of 2,500. What it does show is one of the most monumental jazz events San Francisco has ever seen.

‘An exceptional opportunity’

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.’”

Esther Marrow sings at Grace Cathedral, 1965. (Photo: YouTube)
Esther Marrow sings at Grace Cathedral, 1965. (Photo: YouTube)

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.”

Marrow returns for the 50th anniversary concert this week, a little more seasoned than she was in 1965. After being discovered by Ellington, she went on to sing alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., meet multiple U.S. Presidents and lead the highly regarded Harlem Gospel Choir. But at Grace Cathedral, after warming up with the band in Lake Tahoe, she arrived with the jitters.

“Ooh, I was really nervous,” Marrow tells me recently, on the phone from the East Coast. “Because you gotta remember, this was my first time performing, period! I had only sang in church. And to be singing with Duke Ellington and his orchestra? Oh my God.”

Ellington had his troubles the day of the concert as well. “Duke had on a white suit, and the pants had not arrived,” Marrow recalls. “I’ve never seen Duke get upset, but he was a little perturbed about that.”

Ellington was so taken with Marrow that he asked her to stay on with the band for the Monterey Jazz Festival the next night, and for an upcoming Midwest tour; she eventually sang with Ellington for the next few years. She has only revisited Grace Cathedral once, in the late ’80s, and is excited to return for Ellington’s groundbreaking program.

“You know, Duke was a jazz man, but he had a connection also with God,” Marrow says. “And I think that he wanted to show that being a jazz musician did not make him separate and apart from believing in and knowing God.”

‘We’re still talking about it today’

When one thinks of the intersection of religion and jazz, it’s often toward more broadly spiritual works. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, probably the best-known example, references God directly but leaves the details vague. Yet Ellington’s sacred concert was so specific that at one point, a choir chants the complete books of the Bible.

Miguel Zenón, bandleader for this week's 50th anniversary concert. (Photo courtesy SFJAZZ)
Miguel Zenón, bandleader for this week’s 50th anniversary concert. (Photo courtesy SFJAZZ)

“In the case of Duke — and you could say the same for Coltrane, or other musicians — they were able to find the vehicle for the questions they had around spirituality and religion,” says Miguel Zenón, the saxophonist and bandleader for this week’s 50th anniversary concert. “And people actually liked it; it was successful. We’re still talking about it today because it’s great music.”

Zenón, raised in the church himself, immediately decided to scale down the size of the band for the 50th anniversary concert (Grace Cathedral’s famous seven-second delay makes large bands sound muddy and indistinct). Along with Marrow, performers include a jazz sextet with Ed Simon, Marcus Shelby and others; a woodwind quintet; tap dancer Savion Glover; singers Kurt Elling and Terrance Kelley; and the Oakland Interfaith Choir.

When we talk, Zenón’s in the middle of a run at New York’s Village Vanguard at night, rearranging Ellington’s music by day, working not from sheet music but by ear from KQED’s footage of the 1965 concert. The admitted pressure of rearranging music from someone of Ellington’s stature is offset, Zenón says, by the joy of swimming in Ellington’s melting pot of black American music.

“Maybe now it’s more common, but what he was doing back then, getting a lot of fans coming from American folklore, or coming from the church, the blues – or even things that were more modern, that were coming from classical music, or new music… back then there weren’t any terms to describe what he was doing,” Zenón says. “He was so new, and he was doing it in such an original way.”

‘A musical event of worldwide importance’

New. Original. These are not words commonly associated with an institution as old as the church. Perhaps that explains Reverend Bartlett’s notes in the 1965 concert’s program:

“We believe Cathedral Churches which are houses of prayer for all people should present offerings such as these,” Bartlett wrote. “Now some will say there is a difference between ‘profane’ and ‘sacred’ expression of the arts. Indeed, there no doubt is; but we believe many use wrong criteria in judging between the two.”

Bartlett was clearly defensive. As Rebecca Nestle says: “Based on my experience, that sounds to me like someone who’s been getting a lot of phone calls.”

A notice in the Chronicle for Ellington's Grace Cathedral concert. (Photo: San Francisco Library archives)
A notice in the Chronicle for Ellington’s Grace Cathedral concert. (Photo: San Francisco Library archives)

SFJAZZ artistic director Randall Kline, who oversaw the Mercer Ellington-led 25th anniversary concert at Grace Cathedral in 1990, says that considering the racial tension of the era, outrage over the concert in 1965 is unsurprising.

“We like to think of ourselves as a culture moving beyond this stuff, but it was only a generation ago,” Kline says. “I can’t tell you how many racist comments I hear from smart people today. So does it surprise me that people would be opposed to it in 1965? Absolutely not.”

In a concert preview for the Chronicle, which ran the same week that the newspaper published a profile titled ‘Who Speaks for the Negroes?’ about the divide between civil-rights elders and black teenagers, Ralph Gleason did not directly address the racism directed at Ellington’s Grace Cathedral concert. The critic was busy railing against the Pulitzer Prize Committee, who’d just ignored a suggestion from the Pulitzer jury to honor Ellington with a prize in music, instead opting to award no prize at all in the category that year — a decision whose “reasoning” is not hard to identify.

Yet in his preview 50 years ago, Gleason praised the progressive nature of his city for hosting the concert. “It strikes me as significant that this entire affair is being presented at Grace Cathedral and that Grace Cathedral is in San Francisco,” Gleason wrote, proudly.


“This sort of thing does not happen in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago. It happens here, and it is a musical event of worldwide importance.”

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