A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“Come Sunday” is one of my favorite tunes in The Real Book, and it has one of the more unusual music histories, too.

Duke Ellington composed the song in 1943 as part of his extended composition, “Black, Brown, And Beige.” In this tone poem, “Come Sunday” represented the spiritual side of the people as they attended Sunday morning church services. You can hear this version of the tune on the Carnegie Hall Concert recording below. Duke’s orchestration in stunning, with alto saxophonist “singing” the melody over a trombone “choir, tenderly intoning the harmonies.

But “Black, Brown, And Beige” wasn’t critically well-received, and Ellington eventually recorded only an abridged version. For this studio recording, he brought in acclaimed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson to record a vocal version of the song.

Both versions are great in their own way!

Here are some recommended recordings/videos:
(for international readers who may not have access to these YouTube links, I’ve indicated the original album names wherever possible so you can listen to them on music streaming services, etc.)

Duke Ellington: Carnegie Hall Concert, 1943

Johnny Hodges backed by a trombone “choir.” starts at 12:48

Duke Ellington: Black, Brown, and Beige

This is the studio version of the song, sung by gospel legend Mahalia Jackson.

Keith Jarrett, 1999

Eric Reed: Mercy And Grace

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
As with many Duke Ellington pieces, many of the melody notes in “Come Sunday” are the upper chord extensions, such as 9ths and 13ths. This is part of what gives the song its beauty and is part of what Billy Strayhorn termed “the Ellington effect.” Duke loved to push musical boundaries like this and in fact once gave his son, Mercer, an assignment to compose a song without using any of the usual chord tones on the melody. Perhaps he had something like “Come Sunday” in mind.

One of the most beautiful moments in the song occurs in the 2nd measure, where the melody note is the #11th of the Eb7 chord. Try using this voicing, making it an Eb9(#11) chord (you can arpeggiate the LH part if the reach is too large for your hands):
LH: Eb Bb G
RH: C Db F A

Study this voicing carefully and see if you can come up with similarly rich voicings for some of the other chords, while you play the melody on top. When you’re first learning how to do this, you may want to write out each voicing so you’ll remember them. After you do this for a few tunes it’ll become easier and you’ll be able to improvise chord voicings as you go along.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
Cultural Antecedents of “Come Sunday”
A study of Come Sunday as part of the tradition of gospel music and spirituals

Irving Townsend on “Black Brown and Beige” by Duke Ellington and Mahalia Jackson

Dvorak To Ellington: A Conductor Explores America’s Music And Its African American Roots
A book by Maurice Peress, who I saw conduct a rare performance of the complete “Black Brown and Beige” with The American Jazz Orchestra in New York City in 1988

Come Sunday: Journey Through The Real Book #66

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