Orientalism in Ellington and Strayhorn’s Far East Suite

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.

3 thoughts on “Orientalism in Ellington and Strayhorn’s Far East Suite

  1. Maximus B

    Ryan this was a lovely, well-executed, and informative post. I never knew about this Duke Ellington album, the idea of combining big band music with a sound that originates from the Middle East could have the unintended consequence of supporting orientalism stereotypes that you have described. This is a profound blog post that you should be proud of. Good work Ryan. I miss you dawg.

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  2. Rachel M

    Ryan, this was a really interesting take on orientalism. The sound produced from these two dynamic music styles clashing is truly unique. I like your comment on being an aware consumer. You can enjoy a vast expanse of music, but you should also be critical and aware of the history connected to it. I think your stance about being a conscious listener is extremely important. As you appreciate an art form, you are also encouraging and approving a certain message. Should a listener separate art from the connotations it is connected to? That’s a question that certainly does not have a clear cut answer.

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  3. So I’m listening to the Far East Suite as I compose this comment …. Good stuff. This is a great, provocative post, Ryan. It’s so hard to see this discussion, as you point out, outside of the racial politics — and the straight up racism — that Duke Ellington had to face as he elevated jazz to the mainstream in the US. The idea that jazz was considered “jungle music” — because people thought the freeform energy of it was somehow primitive and that somehow meant it was closer to African and somehow confirmed their racist stereotypes of African Americans — well, it seems like Ellington would know very well the stakes of representation. And his bits of self-awareness — as a “tourist” (the horns come into that first song like the honking of cars on a busy street) — make me think he was trying to avoid that simplistic view.

    And it’s so amazing that Duke Ellington was essentially one of the most prominent ambassadors for the United States — that he was defining what it means to be an American for so many people he met in these countries — while at the same time fighting his own status at home. Kind of mind-bending.

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