It was 1963, President John.F Kennedy thought it would be a good idea to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of people in the Far East through the medium of music and jazz in particular. President Kennedy appointed ‘Duke’ the legendary American Jazz pianist, Duke Ellington as his Music Ambassador.
Duke Ellington was despatched to the Far East on a goodwill tour under the patronage of the U.S.State Department. Duke Ellington and his famous orchestra went to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Egypt, India, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Persia (now Iran), and Turkey.
Click on the link below to see a photograph of the Governor-General of Ceylon William Gopallawa, leaving the Duke Ellington Concert in 1963 at the Racecourse:
Duke spent a few days in Ceylon and performed to a packed stadium in Colombo. South Asia’s leading radio station, Radio Ceylon was a ‘must visit’ for Duke Ellington so Duke was whisked to Torrington Square for interviews and a concert in the auditorium.
Vernon Corea was a real jazz enthusiast. He was an accomplished jazz pianist and he played by ear. He enjoyed listening to ‘Satchmo’ the great Louis Armstrong. He included the music of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington on his radio programmes on Radio Ceylon.
Vernon met Duke Ellington in a studio at Radio Ceylon and the great man even autographed one of his records for Vernon. He took his children with him to meet Duke Ellington, the Corea Family were also present at the amazing concert in Colombo in 1963.
Duke Ellington thrilled audiences in Colombo. After his visit he released an album called the Far East Suite to commemorate his goodwill tour of the Far East. The front cover of his album, Far East Suite included pictures of Kandyan dancers and a caparisoned elephant from the Kandy Perahera.
Jazz in Sri Lanka inside out
CONTRARY to its nowadays’ apparently diminished and rather muted disposition as a commercially well-established art form, jazz was Sri Lanka’s most acclaimed and urbanely widespread style of music in the 40s and 50s.
Although one hardly gets to hear any jazz being played in the city’s famous pubs, sports clubs or night clubs any more than a beat group playing one or two jazz songs from a podium as of today, the spicy sounds of the Caribbean and Mexico were once gaining wider notice in the country’s big hotels.
Burgeoning Jazz sessions were taking place at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo, the Taprobane and the Mount Lavinia Hotel.
The musicians were all European nationals for there was no local jazz bands or musicians in Sri Lanka during those early years of post-independence. Most of these European bands resembled Swing or Big Bands in the US while some of them resembled the characteristics of Territory Bands that were playing jazz in smaller United States cities.
There were no electronic keyboards or electric guitars available at the time of the development of jazz. The instruments in use were pianos, clarinets, harmonicas, oboes, saxophones, trumpets, drums and semi acoustic-guitars.