Thursday, January 17, 2013

Far of the Middle: Ellington's 1963 State Department Tour

The third State Department tour of the Middle East which sent Duke Ellington and His Orchestra on the bumpy roads of the troubled region became legendary mostly thanks to the Grammy winner Far East Suite, released four years after the journey. First contradiction was the name: with exception of a tune from Japan's tour of 1964 (Ad Lib on Nippon), the rest were songs about and inspired by the Middle East.  

It was a time of social and political discomfort in the States. The racial conflicts had reached a new bloody height and the tension had become explicit and outward. Just three months after global exposition of the image of police dogs attacking Afro-Americans and a cop pinning a black woman to the pavement in Birmingham , Duke was sent overseas by the State Department to spread America's message of democracy and brotherhood to the rest of the world, ironically, through the art of African-Americans.

The Washingtonian Ellington was a natural-born ambassador, and in regard to his flawless sense of management of the orchestra, an adept politician. He was also, in John Edward Hasse's words, "secure, self-confident, optimistic, prideful, aristocrat in demeanor, charming, well-mannered, easy with people from all walks of life, religious, ambitious, clever, didactically oriented, street smart, shrewd in business, restive with categories, stylish dresser, and a growing individualist." Sounds very American indeed. 

So the plan was set to send him over to those countries of US interest (defined, machiavellistically, between two poles of energy resource, i. e. oil, and the anti-Soviet defense) and the journey started where nowadays bloods and bombs are a daily routine: Syria.

I think so far as logistics are concerned, the tour was planned preposterously, as Ellington had to cross Iran (the heart of the Middle East) two times and fly across the whole region to get to the eastern side of it (India) and then travel back to almost where he had started the tour, as if it was treated like a cross-country, one-nighter road trip. The uncomfortable and old military airplanes used for transport, huge distances and the extreme weathers made everybody tired and sick, sooner than expected. Just imagine in November, and only in one country such as Iran, the city of Isfahan has a temperature of 15°C, while in Tehran it is colder, and in Duke's third stop in Iran, Abadan, the temperature reaches 30°C. So even within a country, by travelling from one point to another, you change a season.

According to Ellington researcher David Palmquist, the tour was originally supposed to be 14 weeks, including the days of departure and return from/to New York, but in November, a 15th week was added for a tour of Yugoslavia.  However, the Ankara and later concerts were cancelled when President Kennedy was murdered and the band arrived back in New York on November 28.

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra left New York City on September 6, 1963 for Damascus in Syria, with the connection flight from Rome.

What follows is a pictorial reminiscing of that journey which continued for more that two months.

A: Syria

They played two concert in Syria (9 & 11 Sep), one before an audience of 17000. The orchestra was briefed by the US ambassador in Damascus. Ray Nance showed signs of nervous breakdown which might have triggered by his ongoing drug addiction problems.

An official invitation from the Syrian leg of the trip

B: Jordan

On September 13, they started a concert in the capital city of  Amman; the venue being the old Roman theater on a hillside, a north-oriented and steeply raked structure for 6,000 people.

According to David Palmquist, the second performance was a lecture-demonstration at Ramal'ah, Jordan at 3 p.m. and the third performance was a concert there at 7:30 p.m.

A day later, there came a trip to Zargha, situated 25 km north east of Amman, for a lecture-demonstration which marked the fourth and last performance of the Jordan visit.

It was in Amman that Ellington observed the depk dance by a group of small boys and girls, marked by "a little kick on the sixth beat." The tune from the Far East Suite, Depk, was written after that inspiring scene.

Ellington and Billy Strayhorn are the guests of honor at ambassador William Macomber's. Duke feels unwell.

The Amman concert

C: Lebanon

A short stop for taking the flight Kabul. (See C2 for the return to Beirut.)

D: Afghanistan

"The concert in Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium [September 19] was attended by an estimated 5,000 people including government officials, the diplomatic corps, and members of the Royal Family. When Ellington learned that prayer time would occur during the performance, he stepped to the microphone and announced that the orchestra would stop playing so the audience could pray." [1] However, Duke's version of the prayer story is slightly different, as he told it to the BBC TV personality, Michael Parkinson. Check what Duke says here.

L to R: William Brewer, U.S. Chargé d’affaires; Ellington; Mr. Pardes, Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture. [picture source]

Years later, on the very same spot at Ghazi Stadium that the stage was built for Ellington, Taliban executed a woman whose footage shocked the world. [2]

E: India

This must have been the longest and most exhaustive part of the tour, as well as the most rewarding. This sub-continent trip was marked by Duke's severe illness and eventual hospitalized that cost missing few dates for which Strayhorn filled the piano chair.

The cities announced for the tour were:

New Delhi (Sep 24-26), 
Hyderabad, (Sep 29-30), leaving for Bangalore, without Duke.
Bangalore (Glass House, Lal Bagh; October 3), 
Madras (Oct 6),
Bombay (Rang Bhavan; October 9 and 10), 
Calcutta (three concerts, starting from Oct 14).

Two songs from this trip found their way into the Far East Suite album. Bluebird of Delhi (Mynah) and Agra which is the site of Taj Mahal.

Duke checking on the local musicians in India

F: Sri Lanka

On 21 October, a day after a bumpy flight from Calcutta, The Orchestra plays at the Race Course in Colombo, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) for three successive nights.

According to website of the Caylon Radio DJ Vernon Corea (who is some sort of local hero), Duke spent a few days in Sri Lanka and performed to a packed stadium at the Tamil Union Oval [Same as Race Course?]. Corea, who was a jazz pianist himself, interviewed Duke for his radio show and even took his children with him to meet Duke Ellington. The concert in the city of Colombo was hugely successful.  [3]

The Vernon Corea website notes that the images of Kandyan dancers and a caparisoned elephant are from Duke's Ceylon part of the tour.

Duke riding to Tamil Union Oval

G: Pakistan

Ellington's arrival in Pakistan was a chance for elite and educated Pakistanis to have their first taste of real jazz. "That experience in the open air Theatre of Lawrence Gardens still lives with me," writes Majid Sheikh for the Pakistan's English-language newspaper Dawn." [4]

Bagh-e-Jinnah where Duke performed in Lahore

Another article, published  in Dawn, 2006, by the Urdu novelist A. Hamid recollects the event:  "When Duke Ellington came to the city on a State Department goodwill tour and played at the Open Air Theater, it was [Lahore’s master piano tuner] Lobo who tuned his piano to perfection. The maestro was impressed.”

The concerts were held on October 30 and 31

The embassy report from Karachi wrote that "no other American visitor except Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy received such a popular ovation from the press in recent years." [5]

H: Iran

According to David Palmquist, the band arrived at 2 a.m. the morning of November 5 having left Karachi at midnight. The concert held in November 5 was broadcasted on Iranian national TV and made Ellington “the talk of the town.”[6] Just a day after the broadcast, New York Times reported from Tehran that Ellington has condemned racial segregation in the United States and hoped for resolving the race issue in favor of black Americans.

Soon after, the orchestra traveled southbound for Isfahan. But Isfahan, the most popular standard emerged from the album, had come to life at some point prior to realizing the tour of '63 and visiting the pearl of the Middle East. According to the Far East Suite liner notes, Isfahan first appeared on a New York studio session from July 1963, three months before Ellington visited the city, and back then, obviously, it carried a different title. The exhilarating beauty if Isfahan convinced Ellington and Strayhorn for the new title. It's the city you can name any beautiful creation after that.

The last Iran concert had been planned for the oil city of Abadan in the southwest. In Friday, November 8, 1963, 5 PM, Duke and his orchestra appeared on sage at the Abadan's Stadium (aka Pahlavi Stadium/Takhti Stadium or sometimes in English sources, inaccurately, Bahman Shir Stadium which is actually the name of the street, not the venue itself ), one of the oldest sport venues in Iran with 5000 seats. The admission price was 100 rials. Incidentally, the picture on the back of 100 rial bills is the image of Abadan oil refinery.

Abadan - early 1960s

Duke in Abadan

After Abadan, the road weary travelers stopped in Kuwait because due to Iran-Iraq's political tension, no direct flight was allowed between two countries

I: Iraq

When the band arrived in Baghdad, they found themselves caught in a US-supported coup d'état. It was a bloodless coup, nevertheless noisy to the extent that Ellington said to a journalist in Beirut "Those cats [in Baghdad] were swinging, man!"

Penny M. Von Eschen reports about an auspicious beginning for the band in Baghdad, with a party celebrating the founding of the U.S. Marine Corps held at the home of the U.S. ambassador, Robert C. Strong: "Noting that the 188th birthday was being fêted in a 1,200 year old city, one U.S. official reported that 'the ambassadorial residence rocked' as four hundred Iraqis and Americans 'danced to such old favorites as Take the A Train, Mood IndigoSophisticated Lady...or crowded around the orchestra for a closer look at the ageless Duke.'" [7]

Duke and Paul Gonsalves smoking shisha

In November 14, the concert at the Khuld Hall in Baghdad was televised, but the version available online is from a re-broadcast by Al-Mashregh TV in Lebanon. [David Palmquist challenges the date and the place: "The documents only show one televised concert, Nov. 12 and a still photo of that concert shows the men in white. I tend to think the video is from a performance somewhere else on the tour."]

C2: Lebanon

In there, Duke saw (from a distance or actually visited) Harissa (20 km north of Beirut), a mountain village and home to the pilgrimage site, Our Lady of Lebanon. The hill on which the site is located [picture below] became an inspiration for Mount Harissa on the Far East Suite.

Between November 15 to 20, four concerts were played at Theatre Du Liban.

J: Turkey

November 21. Landing in Ankara. On the next day, before any concert is held, they learn of John F. Kennedy's assassination. 

Duke is forced to cancel the remaining of the tour in Istanbul, Nicosia, Cairo, Alexandria, Athens, and Thessaloniki. Heavy-hearted, Ulysses journey ended where it began. A pack of new musical ideas was the outcome of the tour for Ellington. With recent lights shed on the various aspect of the tour, the impact of it on the countries Ellington visited remains to be culturally significant.

alternative album artwork
The State Department, quite rightly, thought of Ellington as the messenger of beauty and peace that America of 1963 desperately needed. But looking at the cover of the album and harmonious juxtaposition of  the elements from countries Duke traveled in, one cannot escape the fact that it was also a message of peace among the nations who had a long history of messy relationships (Iran and Iraq; India and Pakistan; Syria and Lebanon). The hostility in the region, mostly due to the inconsistent and dubious policies of the US, never began to cease, and Ellington's music became that rare imaginary moment when gunfire stopped and a bird started singing over the battlefields of the Middle East. The recorded album was an open invitation to eternal tranquility of music.

  • Duke Ellington's Far East Suite: Liner notes for the original CD reissue in 1988 By Neil Tesser
  • Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War by Penny M. Von Eschen (Harvard University Press, 2006)
  • Duke Ellington's America by Harvey Cohen (University of Chicago Press, 2011)


  1. Hi Ehsan

    What an interesting and beautiful posting! And the nice photos you found to go with this!

  2. Coincidentally - and completely parochially - I posted about Duke appearing on the cover of TV Times of all things at my blog today - from 8 February, 1963! Like all of Ellington's years, reflecting on the fiftieth anniversary of 1963 is a rich experience. Your posting here is wonderful and I shall link to it for my own future reference. Many thanks, Ehsan!

    1. Thanks Ian, I just went to your venue and saw the post you've mentioned.

      Here I have an idea for a thriller/musical/adventure film: instead of all those stupid films Hollywood makes about Iran (Argo included), my story is about an Ellington freak who illegally travels to the revolutionary Iran to find the holy grail - the footage of November 5th TV broadcast from Tehran!

      The soundtrack of the film is, obviously, Ellington. No happy ending is welcomed. Should work on that more!

  3. Dear Ehsan,

    I'm writing a play that is set around Ellington's tour to Iran in 1963. Your blog is a great centralization of the various pieces of information that exist on the subject. Do you know the venue of the Tehran concert?

    Kheyli mamnoon!

    1. Dear Torange,

      I have no specific information about the place for the Tehran concert, but I'd say, most likely, Amdjadieh must have been the venue and I'm saying this because of the known fact about similar "western" visits to the city.

      Most of the post-1967 concert were held in the more prestigious and glamorous Roudaki Hall which I have a nice story about it here, blogged by my uncle:

      Would you kindly give me more information about your play? Possibly sending it to my private email which you can reach on "about me" section of this blog?


    2. Torange, see this too:

  4. Simply brilliant and informative. Thank you from Kabul.

  5. Hi there,

    Very interesting read. I was wondering whether Duke played in Ankara or not since you've mentioned in your post that "Duke was forced to cancel the remaining of the tour in Istanbul, Nicosia, Cairo, Alexandria, Athens, and Thessaloniki". If these were the "remaining dates" then he'd played Ankara concert. Could you, if possible, please clarify this for me?

    thank you..

    1. No concert in Ankara or any other city in Turkey, because only one day after arrival of the band, the news of Kennedy's assassination broke.

  6. thanks for the fast reply and the additional information. I've already posted a tweet inc. the link to this page. hope it'll draw some attention to this interesting story, it deserves appreciation. greetings from Ankara. bye.

  7. Hello Ehsan! This is an amazing post with wonderful photos and detail. I produce a blog for the Southern California NPR station 89.9 KCRW and referenced your blog outlined this tour and linked out to it in one of our posts. Really like your blog and look forward to reading more of it!

    1. Mary, many thanks for your kind remarks, also for putting a link to this post on your website.

  8. interesting information .. thanks

  9. Hey this post is great. For me "The far east suite" is awesome.
    In this suite there are a track that amazes me. Is "Isfahan in my opinion isthe rithym that they do is almost rock. The strength of tis track is incredible.

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