I’m not alone in considering Duke Ellington one of the great composers of the 20th century. His oeuvre traces the story of jazz, ragtime and gospel music in a way that made him an obvious choice for the state department tours of the 1960s that brought his orchestra around the world as ambassadors of American culture. Those experiences brought Ellington and Billy Strayhorn into contact with some of the traditional musical styles of Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean, and they wasted no time syncretizing those elements into new works for the orchestra.
I have long loved works like the “Far East Suite” and the “Latin American Suite”, but until recently I was unaware of the 1965 Ellington album Concert in the Virgin Islands. Like those other works, it was recorded in New York after the orchestra had returned from tour, and it features pieces that might be called homages to the lands they had visited. Most of the songs are vehicles for individual band members, including a lovely arrangement of “Chelsea Bridge” that features Paul Gonsalves. “Virgin Jungle” highlights the impeccable clarinet work of Jimmy Hamilton.
I first heard this song on Abdullah Ibrahim’s 1981 album Duke’s Memories.