52 Weeks of Music

Duke Ellington – Ellington at Newport 1956 (Complete)

Posted in Uncategorized by Mark on February 5, 2009

Even before this new musical style called blues was being invented, perfected and evolved into rock and roll, a separate form of music with similar ethnic and geographic heritage was following it’s own trajectory. From it’s roots as ragtime and dixieland in the late 1800’s, jazz was moving toward swing even before Son House and Robert Johnson had started recording.

From the early 1920’s through to his death in 1974, “Duke” Ellington was a giant of the jazz, or as he called it “American Music”, scene. Born Edward Kennedy Ellington on April 29, 1899 he was said to have inherited an elegance and fine manner from his mother and self confidence from his father. His childhood friends noticed his noble airs and dubbed him “Duke”.

Ellington considered himself a composer and band leader first and pianist second, treating his orchestra as his primary instrument. And what an instrument they were – his orchestra featured some of the greats of jazz, many of whom stayed with him for decades.


I’ve picked this week’s album, Ellington At Newport 1956 (Complete), mostly because I fell in love with the story behind it.

The story goes something like this…

By 1956 the Duke and his band were in a bit of a flat spot. They had been a major part of the establishment for the best part of three decades and with rock and roll on the up and up – jazz, and big band jazz in particular, was under threat.

Music festivals were a relatively new thing at this point (the Newport was founded in 1954) and so were live recordings of concerts. And audiences were generally fairly sedate.

On July 7 1956, after some drenching thunderstorms, Duke Ellington’s orchestra took the stage to kick off the closing night of the festival. Or at least some of them did – for some reason four of the band had failed to make it on stage.

After a rendition of “Star Spangled Banner” and a couple of standards Ellington and his band left the stage. They returned at the end of the evening with the full compliment and started off with “Take The A Train” followed by recently composed and under-rehearsed medley called “The Newport Suite”. These fell flat and the band moved on through a couple of other lack lustre numbers that also failed to give any indication of what was to come.

The band then went back to some of their earlier material with a pair of blues called “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue” – these songs were to be joined by an interlude from saxophonist Paul Gonsalves.

At the proper moment, Gonsalves dug in with his tenor and started blowing. Somewhere around the seventh chorus, it happened. A young blonde woman in a stylish black dress sprung up out of her box seat and began to dance. She had caught the spirit, and everyone took notice — Duke included. In a few moments, that exuberant feeling had spread throughout the crowd. People surged forward, leaving their seats and jitterbugging wildly in the aisles. Hundreds of them got up and stood on their chairs; others pressed forward toward the stage. Sam Woodyard and Jimmy Woode kept driving the beat mercilessly. The power of that beat, and the ferocity of Paul’s solo, is what stirred the crowd to those heights. Duke himself was totally caught up in the moment. The audience was swelling up like a dangerous high tide.

Gonsalves played 27 choruses before Duke let him quit and then he apparently collapsed in exhaustion. But 7000 people in the audience wanted more. The band played a couple more numbers and then the concert organisers tried to call it a night, but neither Duke nor the crowd were having any of it.

When the next song “Tulip or Turnip” drew to a close concert organiser George Wein jumped up, grabbed the mic and told everyone “That’s it! End of story”. This is and the altercation between Ellington and Wein that followed can be heard on the track colourfully titled “Riot Prevention”. Wein insisted Duke call it quits, but Duke wasn’t to be dissuaded.

“Let me tell them good night,” he pleaded. “Can I tell them good night. . . ”

“No more music, Duke. . . ”

But I let him approach the microphone for a final adieu, one last “We love you madly” for the masses. They quieted as Duke stepped up and began to speak.

“Thank you very much, Ladies and Gentlemen.” The roar began again. Duke continued over the din. “We have a very heavy request — for Sam Woodyard! And “Skin Deep”!

And so the band kicked on with a raucus, 9 minute song with a number of wild drum solos – definitely not the thing to calm a mutinous crowd. However once the noise had died down the band moved onto a soothing classic called “Mood Inidgo” and Ellington farewelled the crowd:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we certainly want to thank you for the way you’ve inspired us this evening.

You’re very beautiful, very sweet, and we do love you madly. As we say good night, we want to give you our best wishes, and hope we have this pleasure again next year. Thank you very much.”

And that was the end of that. This concert, and the recording of it,  propelled Ellington into the second half of his career and on to another couple of decades of success.


But the recording itself was largely a fabrication. During the concert there were a range of stuff ups that resulted in the much of the recording being lost – the main example being the famous Gonsalves solo which he played into the wrong mic. Ellington and the band went into the studio shortly after the gig and rerecorded significant chunks, mixed these recordings with the original and some canned applause and released it as a live album.

But the story doesn’t even end there… In 1996 someone, somehow incredibly located the recording captured by the mic that Gonasalves did play into and in 1999 a new version of the concert, which mixed the original recording and the lost pieces, was released. And finally the original concert could be heard in it’s entirety. This recording, tittled Ellington At Newport 1956 (Complete) is this weeks album. It’s a small piece of musical history and one of those rare moments of beautiful madness.

The quotes in this story all come from Duke Ellington at Newport, 1956As told by Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein – a first hand account of the evening by the festival organiser.

Allmusic Review

Highly recommended.
allmusic ★★★★★

Sample: http://blip.fm/profile/markstanton/blip/7096753 (not album version)

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