After the Reprise recordings in Paris, it took four years before Ellington and Alice Babs worked together again and it was only by chance.
In early 1967, Ellington did a European tour together with Ella Fitzgerald. A concert was scheduled for Malmö in the south of Sweden on January 26 but for some reason Fitzgerald had been booked to be also in Berlin that night. So Ellington called Babs and asked if she could step in.
She said yes and arranged to have a piano and a tape recorder available for a rehearsal with Duke when he was in Stockholm some days before. However, in the final end he did not have time so Babs arrived in Malmö totally unprepared.
She remembers: ”When I arrived i Malmö, the Ellington band was not there. The first concert was to start at 19:00 o’clock but the full band was not in place until 19:15. So I had to do two full concerts in front of sold-out houses without any rehearsals.” But Babs managed by getting the band to improvise with her. ”It was actually two quite good performance”, she has said afterwards.
Almost a year later, they got in touch again. ”One night in December he called me from Las Vegas and asked if he could write something for me in the ”Second Sacred Concert”, which he was preparing.” Babs said yes and arrived in New York in early January for rehearsals. But nothing was ready yet.
”I almost had a nervous breakdown”, she had said. ”I had to be some kind of co-composer because time was short and the last song was ready only two days before the concert.”
The premiere of the the ”Second Sacred Concert” took place on January 19, 1968 in St. John The Divine Cathedral in New York City.
The day after, it was presented in St. Marks Episcopal Church in New Caanan, Connecticut followed by another performance but with a shorter version of the Concert in the prestigious Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut.
On January 22, the first part of the recording of the concert started. The second part was done almost a month later but by that time Babs had returned to Sweden.
There were several performance of the ”Second Sacred Concert” in the United States during 1968 and then scheduled also as part of Ellington’s European tour in October-November 1969. This will be the topic of another article in the Babs series.