In 1963, as part of an effort to spread democracy internationally, the United States sent Duke Ellington and his band on a state department sponsored tour to show off it’s most democratic art form. The band played American jazz in India, Iraq, Pakistan, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, and Sri Lanka (before the tour was canceled) and over the next few years would develop the music that became The Far East Suite. The title can be misleading as most of the music was inspired by what we refer to as the middle east.
An early version of the work was called Impressions of The Far East, and I think that their intention in writing, performing, and recording The Far East Suite was always to share their American impressions of the cultural experiences that they had on the tour. The music quite obviously presents a view of the east through the lens of an American big band and I believe aims to represent what the band experienced through a medium with which they were familiar. The whole suite is arranged for a big band, with the musicians emulating everything from local dances to prayer calls to native birds with fairly standard jazz instrumentation.
In the opening track, “Tourist Point of View” Ellington and Strayhorn seem to acknowledge that their perspective is not the only narrative to be had of the east. They know that their understanding is limited and that there is more to the music of the east than the tired harmonic minor scales that have so often come to represent it in popular American culture. They also seem to demonstrate awareness that their “impressions of the east” do not define the region.
This is not to say that there are not problematic aspects of The Far East Suite. One only needs to look at the cover of the album, complete with minarets and elephants, to see that the concept is clearly orientalist in its execution. I would argue that if the music itself is in good taste, there were certainly aspects of its marketing that were misguided.
Ellington had a history of writing “exotic” sounding music for a white American audience where there was a demand. This was commonly referred to as his “jungle sound”. Many early Ellington pieces from the late 20s and early 30s were supposed to evoke pictures of Africa for white audiences featuring mysterious percussion and growling brass. Despite their exploitative, exotic allure, Ellington’s portraits of this nature were always sophisticated, elegantly arranged, and anything but primitive. He may have written for this audience but knowingly did so with as much class and dignity (in the music – not always the marketing) as possible.
Much later in the bands career, at the time that The Far East Suite (1967) came out, they had the unquestioned respect of the American mainstream as artists and intellectuals. However, their motives in releasing the work are debatable. We can look at it as an honest artistic product of their life experiences or we can see it as their attempt to draw in western audiences using the exploitable “mystery and exoticism” that the east had to offer. Either way, it is undeniable that they knew it would be marketable as such.
Overall, I’d definitely recommend listening to the Far East Suite, orientalist or not, but with an open and critical mind. If you want to get the full orientalist experience, I’d recommend checking out “Ahmad”, “Tourist Point of View”, and “Agra” but there is also so much more that the work has to offer. Although these are some of my favorites, it wouldn’t be fair for me to reduce the work to a handful of its most orientalist pieces. The most culturally significant standard on the album is probably “Isfahan”, named after the city in Iran, and makes no attempt to be something it isn’t. It is just one of the many genuine pieces of art sticking out between the blatant mosques and snake charmers on the covers. I think that with awareness and understanding, there is nothing wrong with enjoying this great music.