In 1963, the State Department sent Duke Ellington and his orchestra to tour the Near East for no other reason than to show off a jewel of culture to foreign publics. Even if there were an artist near Ellington’s stature now living, and even if he and his court were able to visit a country like Syria and freely meet the people, it is difficult to imagine the State Department thinking it politically wise or even useful to spend money sending them on extensive foreign tours as unofficial ambassadors, because it is not clear that showing people the most beautiful products of your culture leads straightaway to any desired end.
After playing before about 90,000 people in Syria, Jordan, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, the tour was cut short by President Kennedy’s assassination. (“It would not be right to go on with the tour,” Ellington said. “It just wouldn’t have been graceful.”) Whatever its impact on foreign publics, though, the tour’s most lasting impression may have been The Far East Suite, the 1966 album that includes “Isfahan,” a spotlight for the great altoist Johnny Hodges that is perhaps the clearest, cleanest and most beautiful song in Ellington’s immense catalogue.
There are a couple of things to note. One is that the song was actually written before the 1963 tour, so that it was less inspired by the titular Iranian city than given to it, as a gift. The other is that this was written in collaboration with Billy Strayhorn, meaning that fifty years ago, the federal government paid for an openly gay black man to travel abroad and deliver songs in praise of Iran’s beauty. We are not so much more advanced than our great-grandfathers as we would perhaps like to think.