100 Essential Albums: #95 — Ellington at Newport by Duke Ellington (1956)
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
— Duke Ellington
When Duke Ellington took the stage at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, he was viewed as a nostalgia act. His music was considered outdated. Big bands, so popular during the 1920’s and 1930’s, seemed to be a thing of the past. Ellington didn’t even have a recording contract at the time. More than a decade removed since his last commercially successful hit, Ellington and his struggling orchestra were at such a low point, they regularly played at ice skating rinks to pay the bills. Ellington was 57-years-old. His career was going nowhere.
Jazz festivals were a new thing, back then. Newport’s annual gathering had begun just two years earlier. Many locals disdained the summer weekend invasion of Bohemian-looking jazz aficionados. Long before Woodstock, young people made pilgrimages to a music festival where there were no accommodations. So, many attendees camped out and slept in local parks. There was also an ugly racial element to the objections raised by many of Newport’s rich WASPish elite.
Ellington’s band was booked to play three songs at the start of the 1956 festival, then was scheduled to close the show with a few old favorites from the Cotton Club days. No one expected much. In fact, when Ellington launched into his early short set, four band members were missing from the stage performance. They got lost en route and couldn’t find the venue. Few noticed the missing horn players. No one cared.
Then, nearing midnight, after all other acts had completed their sets, Ellington and his big band re-took the stage and in the lengthy set which followed launched into one of the greatest live performances in jazz history. Most of the session was impromptu. Initially, Ellington planned to perform his standard playlist. However, at concert promoter George Wein’s urging, Ellington (with the help of collaborator Billy Strayhorn) composed new material which premiered at Newport. But it was Paul Gonsalves, a tenor saxophonist, who ended up stealing the show with a rousing 27-chorus solo on Ellington’s closeout classic, “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” The youthful crowd, normally calm and polite, stood up and began dancing in the aisles. At one point, organizers tried to end the show, but the boisterous audience simply refused to disperse. So, Ellington and the band played on, and on. Wein, who was present that night, later described Ellington’s performance by saying, “it stood for everything that jazz had been and could be.”
“As performed at Newport, the experiment ended up revamping the Ellington reputation and fortune for the rest of Ellington’s life. The previous experiments culminated in a 27-chorus solo by Gonsalves — simple, but powerful — backed only by bassist Jimmy Woode, drummer Sam Woodyard, and Ellington himself pounding punctuating piano chords and (with several audible band members as well) hollering urgings-on (“Come on, Paul — dig in! Dig in!”) to his soloist. The normally sedate crowd was on their feet dancing in the aisles, reputedly provoked by a striking platinum blonde woman in a black evening dress, Elaine Anderson, getting up and dancing enthusiastically. When the solo ended and Gonsalves collapsed in exhaustion, Ellington himself took over for two choruses of piano solo before the full band returned for the “Crescendo in Blue” portion, finishing with a rousing finale featuring high-note trumpeter Cat Anderson.”
Fortunately, Columbia Records had sent a crew to Newport to record the memorable session. The performance was quickly pressed onto vinyl and became Ellington at Newport, now widely viewed as one of the greatest live jazz albums in history and certainly the finest performance of Ellington’s lengthy career. The performance stirred such excitement that it ignited a renaissance in big-band style jazz. A few weeks later, Ellington was on the cover of Time magazine. He was booked on popular television shows. Then, Ellington was asked to score movies. He went on to win 14 Grammy Awards. Newport in 1956 marked a stunning turnaround for a musician-composer thought to be over the hill.
The original pressing of Ellington at Newport contains just five songs, including “Festival Junction,” “Blues to Be There,” “Newport Up,” “Jeep’s Blues,” and “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” which are really two songs interspersed with the sax solo (there was no sax solo on the original recording — the two songs were on opposite sides of a 78 rpm record). Short of space in the album (which runs 41 minutes), many songs played that night were omitted and thought to be lost. The 1956 version of the LP is also severely hampered by today’s technical standards because stereophonic albums weren’t mass produced until a year later. Hence, the far superior collection is a 1999 re-issue of the album which contains a treasure trove of original recordings enhanced to superior quality. It contains everything relating to that show.
Indeed, the re-mastered 1999 edition of Ellington at Newport clocks in at a whopping 2 hours and 9 minutes. It contains all the original recordings from that memorable night in Newport (including Ellington’s band opening the festival with “The Star-Spangled Banner” — normal back in the day). There’s also lots of cool banter between Ellington and his bandmates. The re-mastered edition also contains nine additional recordings which were not on the 1956 original album. While the older album is still well worth a listen, I can’t stress enough how much better the updated version is for those who’d like to become better acquainted with Ellington’s extraordinary body of work.
It’s also worth noting that some of the original recordings were later mixed with studio sessions. Despite being an iconic live event, always the perfectionist, Ellington wasn’t happy with the overall quality of the Newport performance. So, some portions were re-recorded in Columbia’s New York studio. For instance, Gonsalves’ entire saxophone solo had to be re-done. Turned out, he was blasting away into the wrong microphone at Newport and most of the solo was inaudible.
Nonetheless, Ellington at Newport is widely acclaimed as a historic landmark in Jazz. It reignited widespread enthusiasm for the big band sound. At the time, Ellington was up against Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Frank Sinatra for a place in the charts. He proved once and for all that great music was both ageless, and timeless.
For one summer night in 1956, the Duke was king.
Postscript: Ellington was honored with a special White House dinner in 1969. He was presented with the Medal of Freedom by President Richard Nixon. Here’s some rare footage of the evening, which includes a number of short performances and concludes with Nixon himself playing piano and singing “Happy Birthday” to Ellington.
Note: This is the latest segment in a series of reviews and retrospectives of my “100 Essential Albums,” which will be posted here regularly on my website over the next year, or so. Previous selections include:
#97: Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back — by Frank Sinatra (1973)
#96: The Doors — by The Doors (1967)