|The LP cover. Duke sitting on a Persian rug, flying around the Middle East|
The third State Department tour of the Middle East which sent Duke Ellington and His Orchestra on the bumpy roads of the troubled region became legendary mostly thanks to the Grammy winner Far East Suite, released four years after the journey. First contradiction was the name: with exception of a tune from Japan's tour of 1964 (Ad Lib on Nippon), the rest were songs about and inspired by the Middle East.
It was a time of social and political discomfort in the States. The racial conflicts had reached a new bloody height and the tension had become explicit and outward. Just three months after global exposition of the image of police dogs attacking Afro-Americans and a cop pinning a black woman to the pavement in Birmingham , Duke was sent overseas by the State Department to spread America's message of democracy and brotherhood to the rest of the world, ironically, through the art of African-Americans.
The Washingtonian Ellington was a natural-born ambassador, and in regard to his flawless sense of management of the orchestra, an adept politician. He was also, in John Edward Hasse's words, "secure, self-confident, optimistic, prideful, aristocrat in demeanor, charming, well-mannered, easy with people from all walks of life, religious, ambitious, clever, didactically oriented, street smart, shrewd in business, restive with categories, stylish dresser, and a growing individualist." Sounds very American indeed.
So the plan was set to send him over to those countries of US interest (defined, machiavellistically, between two poles of energy resource, i. e. oil, and the anti-Soviet defense) and the journey started where nowadays bloods and bombs are a daily routine: Syria.
I think so far as logistics are concerned, the tour was planned preposterously, as Ellington had to cross Iran (the heart of the Middle East) two times and fly across the whole region to get to the eastern side of it (India) and then travel back to almost where he had started the tour, as if it was treated like a cross-country one-nighter road trip. The uncomfortable and old military airplanes used for transport, huge distances and the extreme weathers made everybody tired and sick, sooner than expected. Just imagine in November, and only in one country such as Iran, the city of Isfahan has a temperature of 15°C, while in Tehran it is colder, and in Duke's third stop in Iran, Abadan, the temperature reaches 30°C. So even within a country, by travelling from one point to another, you change a season.
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra left New York City on September 6, 1963 for Damascus in Syria, with the connection flight from Rome.
What follows is a pictorial reminiscing of that journey which continued for more that two months.
On November 15 they left the country for Turkey, after a short stay in Lebanon.
They played two concert in Syria and were briefed by the US ambassador in Damascus. Ray Nance showed signs of nervous breakdown which Duke referred to as symptom Nance's rehabilitation from drugs.
They started in the capital city of Amman; the venue being the old Roman theater on a hillside, a north-oriented and steeply raked structure for 6,000 people.
The second concert was held in Zargha, situated 25 km north east of Amman. However, it was in Amman that Ellington observed the depk dance by a group of small boys and girls, marked by "a little kick on the sixth beat." The tune from the Far East Suite, Depk, was written after that inspiring scene.
|The Amman concert|
In there, Duke visited Harissa (20 km north of Beirut), a mountain village and home to the pilgrimage site, Our Lady of Lebanon. The hill on which the site is located [picture below] became an inspiration for Mount Harissa on the Far East Suite.
"The concert in Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium was attended by an estimated 5,000 people including government officials, the diplomatic corps, and members of the Royal Family. When Ellington learned that prayer time would occur during the performance, he stepped to the microphone and announced that the orchestra would stop playing so the audience could pray." 
|L to R: William Brewer, U.S. Chargé d’affaires; Ellington; Mr. Pardes, Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture. [picture source]|
Years later, on the very same spot at Ghazi Stadium that the stage was built for Ellington, Taliban executed a woman whose footage shocked the world. 
This must have been the longest and most exhaustive part of the tour, also the most rewarding. I guess at the Indian part of the tour, the journey should be like the image below which literally means circling the sub-continent.
The cities announced for the tour were New Delhi, Bangalore (Glass House, Lal Bagh; October 3), Madras,
Hyderabad, Calcutta (three concerts) and Bombay (Rang Bhavan; October 9 and 10). During the tour Duke fell ill and couldn't appear on stage for some of the dates. Billy Strayhorn must have filled the empty chair for bedridden Duke.
Two songs from this trip found their way into the Far East Suite album. Bluebird of Delhi (Mynah) and Agra which is the site of Taj Mahal.
|Duke with local Indian musicians|
F: Sri Lanka
According to website of the Caylon Radio DJ Vernon Corea (who is some sort of local hero), Duke spent a few days in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) and performed to a packed stadium at the Tamil Union Oval. Corea, who was a jazz pianist himself, interviewed Duke for his radio show and even took his children with him to meet Duke Ellington. The concert in the city of Colombo was hugely successful. 
|In Sri Lanka|
The Vernon Corea website notes that the images of Kandyan dancers and a caparisoned elephant are from Duke's Ceylon part of the tour.
|Duke riding to Tamil Union Oval|
Ellington's arrival in Pakistan was a chance for elite and educated Pakistanis to have their first taste of real jazz. "That experience in the open air Theatre of Lawrence Gardens still lives with me," writes Majid Sheikh for the Pakistan's English-language newspaper Dawn." 
|Bagh-e-Jinnah where Duke performed in Lahore.|
Another article, published in Dawn, 2006, by the Urdu novelist A. Hamid recollects the event: "When Duke Ellington came to the city on a State Department goodwill tour and played at the Open Air Theater, it was [Lahore’s master piano tuner] Lobo who tuned his piano to perfection. The maestro was impressed.”
The embassy report from Karachi wrote that "no other American visitor except Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy received such a popular ovation from the press in recent years." 
The orchestra must have arrived in Tehran in early November. The concert held in November 5 was broadcasted on Iranian national TV and made Ellington “the talk of the town.” New York Times reported from Tehran, a day after broadcast, that Ellington has condemned racial segregation in the United States and hoped for resolving the race issue in favor of black Americans.
Soon after, the orchestra traveled southbound for Isfahan. But Isfahan, the most popular standard emerged from the album, had come to life at some point prior to realizing the tour of '63 and visiting the pearl of the Middle East. According to the Far East Suite liner notes, Isfahan first appeared on a New York studio session from July 1963, three months before Ellington visited the city, and back then, obviously, it carried a different title. The exhilarating beauty if Isfahan convinced Ellington and Strayhorn for the new title. It's the city you can name any beautiful creation after that.
|Isfahan's feminine and seductive architecture, an inspiration for Hodges.|
The last Iran concert had been planned for the oil city of Abadan in the southwest. In Friday, November 8, 1963, 5 PM, Duke and his orchestra appeared on sage at the Abadan's Stadium (aka Pahlavi Stadium/Takhti Stadium or sometimes in English sources, inaccurately, Bahman Shir Stadium which is actually the name of the street, not the venue itself ), one of the oldest sport venues in Iran with 5000 seats. The admission price was 100 rials. Incidentally, the picture on the back of 100 rial bills is the image of Abadan oil refinery.
|Duke in Abadan|
After Abadan, the road weary travelers stopped in Kuwait because due to Iran-Iraq's political tension, no direct flight was allowed between two countries
When the band arrived in Baghdad, they found themselves caught in a US-supported coup d'état. It was a bloodless coup, nevertheless noisy to the extent that Ellington said to a journalist in Beirut "Those cats [in Baghdad] were swinging, man!"
Penny M. Von Eschen reports about an auspicious beginning for the band in Baghdad, with a party celebrating the founding of the U.S. Marine Corps held at the home of the U.S. ambassador, Robert C. Strong: "Noting that the 188th birthday was being fêted in a 1,200 year old city, one U.S. official reported that 'the ambassadorial residence rocked' as four hundred Iraqis and Americans 'danced to such old favorites as Take the A Train, Mood Indigo, Sophisticated Lady...or crowded around the orchestra for a closer look at the ageless Duke.'" 
|Duke and Paul Gonsalves smoking shisha|
In November 14, the concert at the Khuld Hall in Baghdad was televised, but the version available world-wide is from a re-broadcast by Al-Mashregh TV in Lebanon.
On November 15 they left the country for Turkey, after a short stay in Lebanon.
Landed in Ankara, where they learned of John F. Kennedy's assassination. They were forced to cancel the remaining the tour in Istanbul, Nicosia, Cairo, Alexandria, Athens, and Thessaloniki. Heavy-hearted, Ulysses journey, with a pocketful of new songs and tunes, ended where it began.
The State Department, rightly, thought of Ellington as the messenger of beauty and peace that America of 1963 desperately needed. But looking at the cover of the album and harmonious juxtaposition of the elements from countries Duke traveled in, one cannot escape the fact that it was also a message of peace among the nations who had a long history of messy relationships (Iran and Iraq; India and Pakistan; Syria and Lebanon). The hostility in the region, mostly due to the inconsistent and dubious policies of the US, never began to cease, and Ellington's music became that rare imaginary moment when gunfires stopped and a bird started singing over the battlefields of the Middle East. The recorded album was an open invitation to eternal tranquility of music.
- Duke Ellington's Far East Suite: Liner notes for the original CD reissue in 1988 By Neil Tesser
- Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War by Penny M. Von Eschen (Harvard University Press, 2006)
- Duke Ellington's America by Harvey Cohen (University of Chicago Press, 2011)