Welcome back to our exploration of the musical career of the great Duke Ellington.
In a story that is not unfamiliar to fans of Tony Bennett, Duke Ellington found his style of music falling out of favor at beginning of the 1950s. In 1951, he saw the departure of some of his most valuable musicians from his orchestra, including Sonny Greer and Johnny Hodges. Even though he was able to keep the orchestra together, times were tough and the once-popular Ellington found himself booking one-night stands to keep going. Though he found some success in the reissues of earlier material on the “new” long-playing record albums, by 1955 the great Duke Ellington found himself without a record contract and playing background music for an ice show in Flushing.
The summer of 1956 found Ellington invited by George Wein to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival. What happened on the evening of July 7, 1956 was a legendary performance that is still being talked about today. Duke and his orchestra had played a nicely received set, including a special composition created specifically for the festival. As the night drew towards an end — local statutes required that the music be ended by midnight — Duke Ellington announced that their next number would be an old number from 1937: Dimenuendo and Crescendo in Blue, with an “interval” by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves.
What followed was, to many (including this author), the greatest live jazz performance ever recorded. The Gonsalves interval ran for 27 choruses of virtuoso playing: 14 minutes of incredible, perfect jazz. George Avakian wrote these liner notes for the record of this performance:
Throughout the performance there were frequent bursts of wild dancing and literally acres of people stood on their chairs, cheering and clapping. There were 7,000 people there and by halfway through his solo it had become an enormous single living organism, reacting in waves like huge ripples to the music played before it.
From this concert came his most successful album ever, Ellington at Newport. Originally a single LP, there was a double-CD re-release in 1999 that also included stage announcements and other material. In fact, the track after Dimenuendo and Crescendo in Blue is labeled Announcements, Pandemonium (Live).
And here is that legendary performance: