Music Monday: Duke Ellington and the Important Things

This is the second post of a regular series on music. Some posts in this series will include reflections inspired by songs or musical stories, others will just be introducing a favorite song of mine. You can read the first post here: Billie Holiday and the Prodigal Son.

In September of 1965, Duke Ellington performed the first of the trio of sacred concerts he would ever write. He was 66 years old. 

Here is "David Danced Before the Lord" from that concert at Grace Cathedral: 

Why would one of America's most prolific and esteemed composers write sacred music when he had achieved such acclaim with songs like "Prelude to a Kiss," "Mood Indigo." and "Take the 'A' Train?" What took him so long to decide to write sacred music? 

Duke understood there would be questions about why he was "taking the Cotton Club to church," and so prior to one of his sacred concerts he held a press conference. He told the reporters that writing this music was the "most important thing I have ever done." 

He continued: "Now I can say openly what I've been saying on my knees for 60 years."


I heard this story for the first time just this week, and I can't stop thinking about it. I am particularly stuck on two points:

1. If you asked Duke's fans, or even jazz historians, what Duke's most important work was, few would respond with "his sacred concerts."They received relatively little commercial success. They did not elevate Duke to a new level of stardom. 

But for Duke, the important thing was not the most "successful" thing. 

Are you--am I--spending too much time focused on what is successful, rather than what is important? How can we use our time and talents to create important things, rather than just chase what we think people want? What do people need?

2. On the other hand, we live in a culture that constantly affirms the idea that we, as individuals, have great promise and great ideas, and need to only act on them. If only we understood YOLO, we would accomplish so much.

But Duke spent 60 years in prayer before he felt he could do the most important thing in his career. He had probably thought about the idea much earlier. The obviously devout man could count Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin as his contemporaries--he understood the religious possibilities of his music.

Sometimes, even if we have a good idea, we simply may not be ready to execute on it yet. God may have more work to do with us before we're ready to "go public" with a project. We may need to give ourselves time to grow into what is most important, rather than try to rush the process. As I wrote in a Relevant article earlier this year, I believe God is as concerned about the "process" as He is with the "product." We need to be as well.

As the New Year is just hours away, I want to spend 2014 executing on the important things I am equipped to do now, and grow in my faith so that my life can be used by God more in His time.

What do you think? As always, you can leave a comment below or email me at to continue the conversation.