“Art or Debauchery?”: the reception of Ellington in the UK

Tackley, Catherine (2017). “Art or Debauchery?”: the reception of Ellington in the UK. In: Howland, John ed. Duke Ellington Studies. Cambridge University Press, pp. 76–107.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781139028226.004


This chapter will explore the social, cultural and musical impact of Duke Ellington in the UK, focussing on his 1933 tour of the country, his appearances at the Royal Festival Hall and the Leeds Centenary Festival in 1958 and the premiere of the Third Sacred Concert in London in 1973. These performances, which span Ellington’s career, each took place within the context of particular social and political circumstances, in a range of performance situations and in different regions of the UK.

Ellington’s first visit to Britain in the interwar years took him from the Palladium, one of London’s leading variety halls, to similar venues in Liverpool, Glasgow and Birmingham. During this tour, Ellington and his musicians also played late-night dances and Sunday concerts and. Ellington’s music was familiar mainly among musicians and critics at this time, and whilst trying to meet the high expectations of these influential figures, such as through Melody Maker sponsored Musicians’ Concerts in London, he also had to entertain the general public at these venues. This first visit inspired Ellington to compose ‘Hyde Park’ as a tribute to London, but upon meeting the monarch in 1958, he wrote the more extensive ‘Queen’s Suite’. Whilst the 1933 visit was essentially the result of the enthusiasm and patronage of individuals, namely Jack Hylton and Spike Hughes, and the subsequent tour was probably an unplanned afterthought, the band’s next appearance in the UK demonstrates the strength that Ellington’s reputation had gathered in the intervening years. In 1958, following appearances at the Royal Festival Hall in London, a major concert venue, Ellington’s band opened and closed the jazz section of the Leeds Festival, which was otherwise largely devoted to classical music. Ultimately, Ellington’s work was heard in yet another prestigious setting in the UK, when his Third Sacred Concert was first performed in Westminster Abbey on 24 October 1973 in celebration of United Nations Day.

These three visits provide a rich basis for comparative study of the British reception of Ellington’s developing musical style as demonstrated by these performances, and for wider conclusions to be drawn regarding the attitudes to African American jazz in different periods, places and situations. Contemporary sources, including reviews from local and national papers together with oral history material, will be used to gauge the reaction of critics and audiences in the UK. Furthermore, these three occurrences exemplify the reciprocal nature of cultural exchange between the USA and the UK. Whilst the inspiration that the visits offered to Ellington is frequently considered, this chapter will also explore his influence on British jazz musicians during this forty-year period.

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