I’ve been reading John Fass Morton’s Backstory in Blue, a labour of love on its author’s part, but also a fascinating piece of history about one of the greatest live albums ever made, Duke Ellington‘s Ellington at Newport. If you don’t own Ellington at Newport you should, because it’s the sound of history in the making.
In 1956 Ellington’s career was at a bit of a low ebb. The glory years of the 40s were long gone, and although Ellington had a thriving creative collaboration with Billy Strayhorn (whose biography by David Hajdu is another great Duke book) he was aware that even the jazz that came after him was now being superseded in the public’s mind by rock & roll. Ellington even tried to get in on the action, claiming to have written a few rock and things which he would release in due course. But a 1955 season as the house band at Billy Rose’s Aquacade was a low point in Ellington’s career. By the time he agreed to appear at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, his star had revived a bit, but he seriously needed a boost.
The Ellington band played late on a Saturday night after a weekend of rain, and Ellington was gambling that his newly-composed Festival Suite would win the crowd back to his side. They played a short set at 8.30pm and then had to go off, returning to the stage around midnight.
Backstage, Ellington instructed the band to play the suite and then announced that after that they’d have a bit of fun and play ‘Diminuendo in Blue’ and ‘Crescendo in Blue’, with an interlude featuring the band’s bop-styled tenor sax man Paul Gonsalves, a notorious goof and a man somewhat overfond of Jack Daniels who was nevertheless a great crowd-pleaser and a fine, subtle ballad player. Gonsalves pretended not to know the tune, but he knew it all right. A few years earlier, they’d raised the roof at Birdland by doing the same two tunes with Gonsalves playing a long solo in the middle. Ellington was gambling that if it worked at Birdland, it would work at Newport.
To begin with, Ellington’s worst fears came to pass. The band went onstage to warm applause but the three movements of the not-very-inspired Festival Suite got an increasingly lukewarm response. Ellington cued Jimmy Grissom to sing ‘Day In, Day Out’ and sat at the piano, not playing; Morton reproduces a fabulous photograph, here, of a road-weary Duke staring stonily at the audience, looking like he’s really had it with this shit.
Then, Jimmy Grissom having had the least warm response yet (in spite of what I think was a really nice, suave performance), Duke announces the Diminuendo/Crescendo duo, misspeaking the interlude as an ‘interval by Paul Gonsalves’.
At some point between the announcement and his return to the piano stool, Ellington gathered his considerable resources. From his first pissed-off, dissonant piano chord, there’s a new energy in the playing. You can hear what sounds like his foot aggressively tapping. Bassist Jimmy Woode and drummer Sam Woodyard join in, rather startled, and Ellington skilfully builds the tension until he cues the band with a shout, and ‘Diminuendo in Blue’ kicks off.
It was a cunning choice of works. ‘Diminuendo in Blue’ starts loud and gets gradually quieter, until it’s just Ellington, Woode and Woodyard minding the store, with a serious R&B groove well established. Ellington once again draws out the tension with his trademark piano filigrees, then Gonsalves leaves his sax chair and comes out front.
Gonsalves’ first phrase is a beautifully odd one; it’s completely out, a simple eight-note arpeggiated figure involving notes that are completely wrong for this harmony, such as a minor second and a diminished sixth. Then, having signalled that things are going to get weird, he digs into the blues, and keeps going.
Gonsalves soloes for 18 choruses (not 27, as some sources claim, at least by my count), with Ellington, Woode and Woodyard slowly ratcheting up the intensity, and as it goes on you can hear the crowd getting more and more excited, until by the point the band comes back in, the crowd is going nuts. As ‘Crescendo’ gets louder and louder, and Cat Anderson whips them up with his high trumpet, you’ve got pandemonium. Every time I listen to this track, it catches my breath and I want to cheer.
They played a few more numbers after that, mostly in an attempt to calm the crowd down. But after that, Duke Ellington’s career never seriously faltered. He appeared on the cover of Time — which maybe ought not to be a thing, but is, given that Ellington always wanted to be taken seriously.
The 1956 Diminuendo/Crescendo performance, with Gonsalves’ solo, is one of the ultimate answers to anyone who thinks that improvisation isn’t important, or is merely embellishment, as opposed to the beating heart of a certain kind of music. The excitement that Gonsalves and Ellington and the whole band generated served not only to revitalise the whole concert; it revitalised the lives of many people in it, including Ellington himself.