The outstanding success at Newport helped revive Duke Ellington’s career, including a new recording contract with Columbia. That same summer, he broke another barrier by being the first jazz musician featured on the cover of Time Magazine.
Ellington and the Orchestra were once again in demand for live performances, including an invitation to the first Monterey Jazz Festival and a very successful European tour.
At this same time, Ellington became heavily involved in his more serious composition work that was predominant in the last part of his career. Two projects that brought him and Billy Strayhorn great acclaim were their scores for the films Anatomy of a Murder (1959, directed by Otto Preminger, which won two Grammy Awards for composition, including Best Soundtrack Album) and Paris Blues (1961). Other significant serious works from Ellington and Strayhorn included The Far East Suite and Such Sweet Thunder.
But the most important of these compositions were his three Sacred Concerts in 1965, 1968 and 1973. In these concerts, Ellington and Strayhorn chose to blend Christian liturgy with jazz. The first Sacred Concert was held at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and repeated again at St. John the Divine in New York in December, 1965. Critic Richard Ginell (allmusic.com) gave the recording of the concert five stars and said:
… the concert taps into Ellington’s roots in showbiz and African-American culture as well as his evidently deep religious faith, throwing it all together in the spirit of universality and sealing everything with the stamps of his musical signatures.
Billy Strayhorn died much too young, at the age of 51 in Mary, 1967 from cancer. Even in last days, he was still writing songs. His final composition, obviously influenced by his hospitalization, was called Blood Count. Several months after his death, Ellington released a memorial album to Strayhorn entitled …And His Mother Called Him Bill, which won the 1968 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Large Group.
By the time of the third Sacred Concert, named The Majesty of God, in 1973, Ellington knew that his health was failing. He died from lung cancer and pneumonia on May 24, 1974, just a month after his 75th birthday. His funeral was held at St. John the Divine in New York and was attended by 12,000 people. He is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, the Bronx, New York.
Tomorrow … The Influence of Duke Ellington Continues To Be Felt