History of Hymns: "Come Sunday" reflects Duke Ellington's faith & sacred jazz tradition
UM Hymnal, No. 728
oh, come Sunday,
that’s the day.
Duke Ellington (1899-1974) once said, “By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.” Yet, this master of jazz has a hymn in the United Methodist Hymnal!
A pianist, bandleader and composer, Edward Kennedy Ellington, best known as “The Duke,” was born in Washington, D.C., and died in New York. He is one of the dominant names in the field of jazz in the 20th century.
The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of the UM Hymnal, notes that “Ellington revolutionized jazz by integrating his ‘big band’ style into his scores and innovative arrangements.” The composer of over 1,000 compositions, Ellington established a reputation for sacred jazz concerts.
Ellington began playing the piano at age 7. He showed an early preference for athletics and art and was even offered a scholarship to attend The Pratt Institute of Fine Art, but turned it down. He eventually settled into a musical career.
Ellington’s recognitions include honorary doctorates from Yale and Harvard, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was also the first jazz musician to be elected as a member of the Royal Music Academy of Stockholm. For more information on his life and accomplishments, see www.dukeellington.com.
Ellington didn’t like categories of any kind. He resisted the designation of “jazz” as too narrow for his compositions and preferred that his works be known just as “music.” This applied to other areas of his life as well. He once said, “I don’t believe in categories of any kind, and when you speak of problems between blacks and whites in the U.S.A., you are referring to categories again.”
How does the work of this composer appear in the United Methodist Hymnal? Ellington was a deeply religious man who traveled with a rosary, a cross and a Bible. He studied the Scriptures closely, and was particularly fond of the Song of Solomon.
“Come Sunday” is a song derived from Ellington’s instrumental jazz suite Black, Brown and Beige (1943), a musical history of African Americans that premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1944. In 1958, Ellington added text to this instrumental theme and the song became a standard of his sacred jazz concerts.
African American scholar William McClain notes the importance of Sunday to African Americans, even in secular music: “To the Christian Sunday is, or should be, another Easter, in which God’s victory in Christ over sin and death are celebrated in work, word, song, prayer, and preaching. After all, even [slave] masters and owners tried to be more human on Sunday.”
The inclusion of this song in a mainline hymnal is unique and reflects the jazz interest and background of the UM Hymnal editor. The first version of this song appeared in the collection Ecumenical Praise (1977), also edited by Dr. Young. Rather than being written by Ellington in a set hymn form, the stanzas in the hymnal are excerpted from improvised performances found in recordings and personal statements.
For example, an Ellington quotation, “Gray skies are just clouds passing over” becomes “I don’t mind the gray skies, ’cause they’re just clouds passing by.”
The song is ultimately about the providence of God in all our lives. The refrain addresses God directly, “Lord, dear Lord above, God Almighty, God of love,” and then makes a petition, “please look down and see my people through.” The stanzas point to hope and heaven, concluding that “With God’s blessing we can make it through eternity.”