If you give me a time machine, I know exactly where I’m headed: Newport, Rhode Island, July 7, 1956. All I need is 15 minutes, though I certainly won’t complain if you give me a couple of hours.
If you know me at all, you know I’m a Duke Ellington junkie. It seems like every time I shuffle my iTunes, I’m discovering a new gem that I hadn’t noticed before. From the first time I popped Live at the Bluenote into my CD player, I’ve been getting to know the colourful characters that populated his orchestra. Each of his musicians had an unmistakable sound, from the mournful wail of Johnny Hodges’s alto sax, to the irrepressible cheerfulness of Clark Terry’s trumpet. And then there was Paul Gonsalves.
First time I heard Paul Gonsalves step up to the mic, my mind was blown. I was still learning the ropes on the tenor sax, and this guy just kicked in the door and showed me just how much farther I had to go still. Hell, over a decade later I’ve still got a long way to go.
So what does this have to do with July 7, 1956? Well, that was the date of the Newport Jazz Festival, and one of the greatest musical comebacks of all time. The 50s hadn’t been kind to the Ellington Orchestra. The Big Band Era had been steadily fading away, steadily replaced by the smaller bebop groups. Hell, Charlie Parker, the founding father of bop, was dead and buried in 1955. The band was actually operating at a loss at this point, and Duke only managed to pay his musicians through the royalties of his older compositions.
So things weren’t looking good when Newport ’56 rolled around. Hell, the morning of their performance, several of the band members where nowhere to be found, and they had to play their first set shorthanded. Not exactly unheard of with the Ellington band, but not a particularly auspicious start either. Making matters worse, Ellington’s latest composition, the Newport Suite, intended to be a real showstopper, got only a lukewarm reception.
A few other Ellington classics came and went, to polite applause. And that’s when Duke broke out Diminuendo & Crescendo in Blue. Duke had experimented with a number of interludes between the Diminuendo and the Crescendo before settling on a tenor sax solo. The story goes that on this particular occasion, he innocuously told Paul to blow for as long as he liked this time.
That suggestion may have been the greatest career move the Duke ever made. When Paul’s solo came around this time, he pulled a 27-chorus tour de force that has gone down in history as one of the greatest performances in the history of jazz.
At this point, I want you to track down a recording of the Diminuendo & Crescendo in Blue, off the album Ellington at Newport. Don’t give me that look! I’m sure you kids with your internet magic can find it no problem.
Let me break down what’s happening as you listen. Around the four minute mark, Paul stands up to take his solo. He starts off fairly reserved. Lots of space between the riffs at first. Over the course of the next few choruses, he slowly builds up his momentum, until by chorus number five, you can hear Duke and the rest of the band shouting encouragement. Then chorus 8 rolls around (around six minutes in), and suddenly the crowd starts cheering. At this point, a platinum blonde in a black evening dress jumped up and started dancing.
From there, the cheering only gets bigger and louder as Paul pulls out all the stops. One minute he’s going full tilt in a flurry of notes, only to pull out into the next phrase on a long, keening wail. Just as your ear gets used to his current idea, he’s moved on to something else, so you can’t just tune it out into the background. Gonsalves commands your attention the whole way, before collapsing back into his chair with the Crescendo closing to absolute pandemonium. Seriously. The next track is literally entitled “Pandemonium”, and consists of Duke shouting to be heard over the audience’s uproar. In fact, the crowd is so enthralled that several tunes later when Duke announces it’s time to go the crowd nearly riots, and the Band is forced to play several more encores, dipping into the ballad songbook to try and calm things down.
I’ve listened to Diminuendo & Crescendo over and over and it never ceases to get me all fired up. I can only imagine what it would have been like to actually be there, feeding off the rest of the crowd’s energy, and seeing history in the making as Ellington’s career took flight once more, with a reinvigorated fame that would last well beyond his death.