Duke Ellington is one of the most important musical figures of the twentieth century. He refused to recognize boundaries of any kind and created a staggering body of work that includes three thousand compositions and two thousand records.
Born in 1899 in Washington, D.C., Edward Kennedy Ellington grew up to be tall, handsome, and a fashion plate who kept every hair in place. He had a sophisticated and elegant manner and a magnetic personality that women of all ages found appealing. He was a loner and kept everyone, except a special few, at arms length. Like many geniuses he was unpredictable.
Ellington kept his band going for fifty years, not out of loyalty but because he liked having an orchestra around to play his new compositions. Thanks to this musical obsession, he left us with many of the most recognizable songs of the twentieth century. He could write anywhere, under almost any circumstances. Once, while on a plane he asked a member of his band if he had any manuscript paper. When Ellington was told no, he took off his suit jacket and wrote in pen on the sleeve of his white shirt the eight bars he had in his head. On the last day of his life in the hospital, he wrote out thirty-two bars on manuscript paper, rolled over, fell asleep, and died.
In the 1940s, Ellington was at the pinnacle of his career, leading an orchestra built around the musicians he had recruited personally. But in the late 1940s, ballrooms were closing, singers started to rule the hit parade, and bands were breaking up, one by one. The future looked bleak, but Ellington was determined to keep his orchestra going. When the payroll was difficult to meet out of earnings, he would dig into his own pocket and use his composing royalties. By the mid-1950s, Ellington was at a low point. His records weren’t selling, some of his players had left, he had placed a distant fourth to Count Basie’s band in the Down Beat reader’s poll, and he had also left Capitol Records with no recording deal in sight.
Ellington’s persistent touring during the lean years paid off when a new avenue for exposure opened up, the jazz festival. He was booked to play the third Newport Jazz Festival in July 1956. By then he had signed with Columbia Records and had written a new piece, “Newport Jazz Festival Suite,” which would be premiered at the festival. His new label was going to record the concert.
Ellington at Newport 1956 turned out to be the bestselling album of his career. The orchestra’s performance almost caused a riot because of the jubilant reaction of the seven thousand watching. There were bursts of wild dancing, and acres of people jumped up, cheering and clapping. The climax of the night was the performance by one of Ellington’s favourite musicians, tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves. For twenty-seven straight choruses (three and a half minutes) he played the bridge between two of Ellington’s compositions, “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue.” Ellington’s career was relaunched.
When the concert was first cut on vinyl, it consisted of the above selections and the closing song, “Jeep’s Blues.” Because some of the live recording was not up to Columbia’s technical standard, and Gonsalves had played into the wrong mic, Ellington and his orchestra went into a New York studio and rerecorded some of the music from that night. When the album was released later that year, it was a cut-and-paste job, with some of the live music from the festival and some from the studio recordings, mixed with fake stage announcements and applause.
The 1999 double-CD edition of the album, Ellington at Newport 1956 [Columbia #CK 40587], sets it straight by assembling in sequence the complete live performance as well as the material recorded in the studio for the original release. In total it includes one hundred minutes of previously unreleased music.
Duke led his fifteen men, including a recently returned Johnny Hodges on sax, Harry Carney on baritone sax, Clark Terry and Ray Nance on trumpets, and Sam Woodyard on drums, with gusto and nervy moves, creating a beautiful, careful blending of diverse musical talents that is so stylish, so unique, and so right.