Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd=piccolo), 2 oboes, 3 clarinets (3rd=bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, suspended cymbal, tambourine, xylophone), drum set, harp, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 25, 1966, the composer conducting
About this Piece
While the centerpiece of Ellington’s first Carnegie Hall concert, Black, Brown and Beige, was not treated kindly by critics (particularly those inclined to dismiss the validity of treating jazz as art music), the concert was more than successful enough for the composer and bandleader to be invited back for a second Carnegie appearance that same year.
This time around, the program was more weighted to the big band standards Ellington built his reputation upon. Though not as expansive as he was in Black, Brown and Beige, Ellington did premiere a new composition that showed the same ambition for expanding traditional jazz forms in order to tell the story of Black America with dignity. New World A-Comin’ is a 13-minute rhapsody for piano and band. The title comes from a book of the same name by the much-decorated Black journalist and author Roi Ottley, which documented the daily lives of African Americans in Harlem during the 1920s and ’30s as well as their hope for a better future.
In his memoir Music Is My Mistress, Ellington wrote, “I visualized this new world as a place in the distant future where there would be no war, no greed, no categorization, no non-believers, where love was unconditional, and no pronoun was good enough for God.”
Musically, that hope takes the form of a virtuoso showpiece for Ellington at the piano—unusual for the bandleader and a more-than-capable pianist who preferred showing off his skills as a composer. The beautiful theme and variations are supported with rich overtones and chords that Ellington scholar Mark Tucker describes as reminiscent of Ravel to the point it “might be called Fox-Trots Nobles et Sentimentales” and is first-rate Ellington. Other parts might be evocative of the Romantic sweetness of Rachmaninoff. Ellington would re-orchestrate New World for orchestra and perform it backed by a number of symphony orchestras, notably the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 1966. —Ricky O’Bannon