In the last decade of his life, Duke Ellington wrote three Sacred Concerts:
- 1965 – A Concert of Sacred Music
- 1968 – Second Sacred Concert
- 1973 – Third Sacred Concert
Ellington called these concerts “the most important thing I have ever done”.
In the Sacred Concerts, Ellington took ecumenical ideals seriously. He didn’t write a mass; instead, he wrote songs and suites based on his own texts, juxtaposing celebratory gospel music, his own unsurpassed tunefulness and the reverential tone of European liturgical music. The Sacred Concerts demand an orchestra that can play with both precision and swing; they also call for first-rate voices, plus an obbligato tapdancer. For the Sacred Concerts, Ellington reshaped his standard ”Come Sunday,” and he wrote extended episodes for the band; he also made statements – as did much of 1960’s jazz -about freedom.
The first concert premiered on September 16, 1965, and was recorded by KQED, a local public television station. The performance was released on CD as A Concert of Sacred Music Live from Grace Cathedral and on DVD as Love You Madly/A Concert of Sacred Music at Grace Cathedral. The official album on RCA, A Concert of Sacred Music, was recorded at two concerts at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York on December 26, 1965.
Additional material from these concerts, not found on the original album, can be found on the 24-CD box set The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (1927-1973).
The concert mixed existing and new material, with “New World A-Commin” and “Come Sunday” from Black Brown and Beige and “Heritage (My Mother, My Father)” from the show My People. A new piece, the song “In the Beginning God”, was awarded a Grammy Award in 1967. It was performed again at Grace Cathedral on its 25th and 50th anniversaries, in 1990 and 2015.