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When Duke Ellington played Kabul

Duke Ellington Arriving in Kabul, 1963. CU Collection Box 345:10. Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville
Image caption Duke Ellington arrives in Kabul with US charge d'affaires William Brewer (left)

Fifty years ago this week, Duke Ellington and his band played in a concert he later called one of the most memorable of his life. The performance was in Kabul, in Afghanistan, and even though Ellington was at the height of his fame, almost all traces of it have been lost.

For the organiser, Faiz Khairzada, and hundreds of Afghans in the audience, the concert was a high point of the early 1960s. "It was very exciting for me to have him in Kabul," says Khairzada, then head of Afghanistan's cultural affairs organisation.

It was he who met Ellington at the airport and drove him on a golden afternoon across Kabul, then a small city, to the stage he'd built at the Ghazi stadium. Khairzada was a jazz fan and they chatted on the way about Louis Armstrong and about plans to make home-grown Afghan films. "You make the movie, kid - and I'll do the music for it," Ellington offered, and in the Kabul of 1963, all that seemed possible.

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Media captionDuke Ellington talks to Michael Parkinson in 1973 about his Kabul concert, and plays a number with the house band

Tickets were free and around 5,000 people made their way to the stadium to hear what to them was the new and strange sound of jazz. Ellington opened with Caravan, followed by Don't Get Around Much Anymore. Khairzada remembers that between numbers Ellington would come to the edge of the stage and chat to the audience.

"Of course the people didn't understand. This kind of music - blues and jazz - was very little known," he says. "But they loved the style. When the trumpets and saxophones came out and did their solos, people were awed - not so much by the sound, but the performance."

Ellington was puzzled when, halfway through the concert, the audience appeared to leave. But Khairzada explained that it was the hour of prayer, and the seats soon filled up again. King Zahir and the royal family came over to shake hands with the band after the concert.

Ellington remembered "riding round all night long" after the concert, listening to Afghan music in cafes. "They have their own thing going on there, and it's good," he told BBC chat show host Michael Parkinson in 1973.

The Kabul concert was part of a longer tour sponsored by the US State Department - jazz diplomacy playing out against the backdrop of the Cold War.

As early as 1953 the American jazz giant Dave Brubeck had himself played Kabul. His visit, he said, had inspired his hit Nomad on the album Impressions of Eurasia. Ellington's tour took in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Iran and Lebanon, where, according to Ellington, "those cats were swinging". The band had reached Turkey on 22 November 1963 when the shocking news came that President John F Kennedy had been assassinated.

In Afghanistan the old order was changing too. This was still a poor country of farmers and herdsmen, but new ideas were in play at least among the elite. Hemlines were going up and hair was going higher. The British supermarket Marks and Spencer opened a branch in 1960. The old absolute monarchy was reforming and Kabul University was thick with factions. Islamic, communist, modernist and other groups began to crowd the growing political space, each with its own idea of what it meant to be Afghan.

Khairzada and many other young intellectuals shared a vision of an Afghanistan with culturally open borders. They welcomed performers from Germany and the US, Iran, Russia, India and Turkey. "I felt we were on a launch pad, we were full of optimism," he says.

He set up an ambitious youth theatre group, staging a production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, which Khairzada had translated into Dari.

Khairzada also booked the Joffrey Ballet, then based in New York. Its co-founder, choreographer Robert Joffrey - born Abdullah Jaffa Bey Khan - was of Afghan descent and later described the trip with great warmth.

"It was a very, very big deal for us," Khairzada says. "Joffrey gave a masterclass for the kids [in Kabul] and a command performance. We had perhaps the worst theatre in the world. It was winter and I collected all the heaters and stoves I could find to keep the dancers warm. But the performance was dazzling."

Image caption Robert Joffrey was said to be thrilled to be performing in his homeland with his ballet troupe

Politically, things were often difficult for Khairzada. He was backed by some elements in government and opposed by others. But then, on 28 April 1978, the communist Khalq party staged the coup that would herald the Soviet invasion and a generation of war.

He and his wife rushed to pick up the children from school and buy as much bread as possible.

Khairzada managed to get the family out of Afghanistan, but he was arrested and put under house detention, as were hundreds of intellectuals. He knew that these were probably his last days, so, slipping out after dark, he arranged to escape. Disguised as a nomad and guided by a smuggler, Khairzada walked for three days along the passes and over the Afghan border.

The Khairzada family were eventually reunited and started life again as refugees in the US. Behind them their house, full of scores, plays, art, and records was looted and then bombed. Everything inside was stolen, including the Duke Ellington LPs.

Khairzada, the organiser of the extraordinary Ellington concert, continued to work in arts administration. He is still a jazz fan.

Faiz Khairzada spoke to Witness - which airs weekdays on BBC World Service radio. You can listen to Monica Whitlock's report here.

Photo of Duke Ellington in Kabul courtesy of Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, CU Collection Box 345:10.

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