Ellington at Newport is a Duke Ellington recording taken live at their Newport Jazz Festival appearance in 1956.
But as with many of the greatest albums in jazz, the story and historical significance of this performance – and it’s troubled journey to full release – runs much deeper, as we’ll discover in this article…
Maestro Duke Ellington’s 1956 Newport concert seemed to have a lasting effect on those who heard it live, as well as listeners who finally got to hear the original recordings of this iconic performance more than 40 years later.
By the end of the 1940s and at the dawn of the 1950s, the era of big bands and swing music was coming to a rapid end.
Sustaining a big band was becoming far too expensive and the days of this music being the pop music of the day were also waning.
Swing was being nudged into the wings as young musicians were breaking the boundaries of jazz.
Early bebop was turning conventional swing on its head with its rapid-fire changes; aficionados and other jazz cognoscenti were sitting down to listen, instead of cutting the rug.
Newport 1956: The Last Hurrah For Swing?
When George Wein, legendary producer of the Newport Jazz Festival invited Duke Ellington and his Orchestra to perform at Newport 1956, Duke saw it as an opportunity to make a significant statement for big bands.
It was a chance to re-introduce his music to a large festival gathering.
Duke figured he would be remembered for this 1956 festival for a new work that he and Billy Strayhorn were writing specially for this appearance.
Wein commissioned the piece a few days earlier and Duke and Strayhorn came through handsomely with their three-movement Newport Suite.
The Duke Ellington Orchestra was already on the road prior to Newport and had time for just two rehearsals before taking the stage at the Rhode Island venue.
Duke Ellington at Newport: Part One
On the evening of June 7th 1956, the orchestra took to the stage and Duke proceeded to count off and conduct Star Spangled Banner.
First a stunned, revered silence and then thunderous applause was heard.
Father Norman O’Connor, Catholic priest and celebrated jazz buff and master of ceremonies at Newport 1956 welcomed the orchestra following which Duke called another classic: Black and Tan Fantasy.
A rhapsody followed during which Duke introduces one soloist after the other.
The following song – Tea for Two – was to be the last of a short set, due to several of the band members being missing.
“They were pulled off stage – by a Catholic priest no less – after two numbers; then waited around in a tent for three hours before going back on… ‘Mex’ [Paul] Gonsalves added the band was angry…” – Phil Schaap [producer, Ellington at Newport Reissue, 1999]
Three hours twiddling their thumbs while being all wound up for their big performance…
Imagine the tension in the air…
Duke Ellington at Newport: Part 2
By now it’s late Saturday night and going into the early hours of July the 8th, 1956.
Duke and the Orchestra is recalled and, once back on stage, they reset.
The orchestra launched into Strayhorn’s classic chart Take the ‘A’ Train to whip the audience up once more.
After the applause died down Duke announced the specially commissioned Newport Jazz Festival suite.
Essentially, it was a series of blues variations written narrative-style, one part setting up the next – from Festival Junction [Part I] to Blues to be There [Part II] and the dénouement, formed out of classic Ellingtonia: Newport Up [Part III].
Each part featured several soloists, but essentially the edifying and cathartic Grecian melancholy of the extended work is a feature for Jimmy Hamilton and the woody tissues of his clarinet, which builds the tension and release through each part of the suite.
Duke and the musicians are feeling it now, feeding off the audience appreciation.
The leader announces his ever-eloquent Sophisticated Lady, calls up his Harry Carney and the baritone saxophonist takes the song away with velvet gravitas.
The audience is lapping it all up. Time for a vocal number to break things up.
Duke announces Jimmy Grissom and the orchestra gets behind him on Rube Bloom and Johnny Mercer’s Day In, Day Out, while Grissom’s luscious tenor saxophone waxes eloquent as he leads the orchestra into the standard; the musicians – for their part – painting the narrative with a myriad of layers of tonal-textures.
Saxophonist Paul Gonsalves’ Epic Solo
At the song’s end, Duke brings tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves to the microphone.
‘Mex’ (as he was known) starts noodling… Time for the song Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue…
As Avakian (up in the stage wings) pointed out in his liner notes to the original release:
“Typically, Duke was enjoying a perfectly successful appearance when he announced this 1937 mid-tempo blues… but no one was planning to break out the champagne or wave flags…”
The rhythm section responded by laying down a rock-solid, swinging beat as Duke, typically, built up the tension, and after a two more such choruses Paul Gonsalves was off and away…
Coming as it did in the wee hours of the morning of July 8th and at the very end of the exhausting, frequently-interrupted concert, the ensuing pandemonium was unexpected.
“A platinum-blonde girl in a black dress began dancing in one of the boxes (the last place you’d expect to see that in Newport!) and a moment later somebody else started in another part of the audience…” – George Avakian [producer, Ellington at Newport, 1956]
Drummer Jo Jones, who came off a set with Teddy Wilson, was by the stage rolled up his copy of the newspaper and began to beat it to a pulp as he kept time on the side of the stage floor, shouting encouragement.
Duke picked up on it and was enjoying the rising tide of visceral energy that was spreading in waves through the audience; he too began to shout his own encouragement to Gonsalves and the rest of the band.
Meanwhile Gonsalves was building his architectural edifice. Layer upon layer, he lays down thick harmonic variations, each more powerful than the other…
The tenor saxophone was now a silken roar, working its way at the changes from the Diminuendo through to the Crescendo. Off stage and in the audience there were frequent bursts of dancing.
The tenor sax man played 27 straight choruses!
In fact, the performance of this song is frequently cited not just as one of the ‘most famous’ moments in the history of the Newport Jazz Festival, but one of the most important in all of live jazz history.
“Literally acres of people stood on their chairs, cheering and clapping,” producer Avakian noted, “yet this was no rock n’ roll reaction; despite the unbridled enthusiasm, there was a controlled, clean quality to the crowd; they were listening to Duke as well as enjoying the surge of activity around them.”
And yet none of this might have come to pass – at least when it comes to preserving the iconic moments of Duke’s performance at Newport 1956.
As the concert was being recorded, microphones were placed strategically and marked accordingly.
However, in the midst of all the musical excitement and the chaos of being pulled off stage and getting back on, soloists – including Gonsalves missed their cued positions completely.
When Avakian listened to the tapes during playback Gonsalves’ entire solo was deemed unfit to mix and master. So the producer had Duke and the Orchestra brought into the studio to “fake” the entire solo.
No mention was made of this when just three of the Ellington songs performed at the festival – The Festival Suite, Jeep’s Blues (featuring alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges) and Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue with the “faked” solo – were released on the original vinyl  and the CD release from 1987.
During this period of the patchwork release, Duke was reported to be extremely disappointed with the whole fiasco of the releases that Irving Townsend replaced Avakian as Duke’s producer at Columbia.
However the recording was left for dead until 1999, when Phil Schaap pursued a reissue again.
Ever the musical sleuth, Schaap found that the Voice of America microphones for legendary radio host Willis Conover’s subsequent broadcast that had been installed on stage in 1956 was where Gonsalves blew his 27-chorus solo into.
Moreover, the VOA, which customarily erased tapes after Conover used them for his broadcast had, quite by chance, forgotten to do so with the whole Newport 1956 concert tapes.
Thus began the meticulous act of restoration by Schaap, with the help of Mark Wilder and his assistants, Seth Foster and Ben Woolf.
The result is that 65 years (and counting) after the fact we now have the entire Ellington at Newport 1956 concert to listen to exactly as it happened on July 7th and 8th.
The glorious double-disc was released to mark Duke Ellington’s Centenary.
All 40 tracks reproduced exactly as played with a minimum of flaws and – most importantly – absolutely no patchwork or fakery. Just music as the band played it all those years ago.
Add to that, discographical details for the meticulous audiophile complete with a booklet containing a photograph of the platinum-blonde in a slinky black dress throwing caution to the winds and dancing the night away with unfettered abandon.
Thanks for reading!
We also put together a round up of some classic Ellington tribute albums featuring greats such as Oscar Peterson, Paul Bley and McCoy Tyner.