Another of my favorite recordings from the 1950’s.
First up, just a bit of backstory, early 50’s I was in the RAF, I did the Air Wireless Operators course which introduced me to the magic of ‘short wave’, try Google if you don’t know what short wave is. Somehow, and I honestly don’t remember how, I acquired an R1155, aircraft shortwave receiver, it sat at my bedside with a pair of headphones for the duration of my time in the RAF and it went with me when I was demobbed. I used to listen to it every night well into the early hours. The best stations were the American Forces Network from several bases in Germany and the Voice of America from Washington DC where they had a great nightly jazz program with a DJ called Willis Conover, [Check his Wiki page]. Conover was a great Duke Ellington fan and did a weekly program devoted to his music plus when Duke headlined at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival he arranged to broadcast the concert live in it’s entirety, that’s where I come in.
July 7, 1956 was a Saturday night/Sunday morning, I was living in Suffolk just outside Bury St. Edmunds and was lying in bed, I switched on my shortwave receiver which was tuned the VOA and heard Duke introducing the following piece of music, Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue. It was fabulous, I’d never heard his band live in this sort of setting before, it was just an unbelievable performance, the greatest sax solo ever, a piece of music that I’ve probably played dozens/hundreds of times since then.
In the late ’30’s Duke had written two short pieces, each about 3 minutes long but for Newport he’d re-arranged them and coyly announced they they would be joined by an improvised interval which would be played by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves.
Duke introduces the theme with a fairly long piano solo and then at around 1 minute the orchestra joins in tossing the theme back and forth between the brass, the sax section and the piano until at about 3min 45 sec there emerges from the horns a very quiet, tentative tenor sax, he sounds very unsure, trying to find his way in but then by 4 mins he’s got it figured out and by 5 mins he really starts to cook! The normally sedate crowd was on it’s feet dancing in the aisles, cheering and shouting encouragement as were members of the orchestra. Throughout you can hear what sounds like someone beating out the rhythm along with Sam Woodyard the drummer, that’s Philly Jo Jones, Basie’s drummer, he’s standing in front of the stage and pounding away with a rolled up program.
Paul Gonsalves continues soloing brilliantly up to 10+ mins when Duke and orchestra come back and they then take it to another level with the “Crescendo in Blue” portion, finishing with a screaming finale featuring high-note trumpeter Cat Anderson.
On the 1999 CD there’s cuts of the festival organizer, George Wein, shouting from the wings demanding that Duke ‘shut it down for Christ’s sake’, he was terrified that there was going to be a riot! Duke just kept smiling and nodding to him as they kept taking it ever higher.
After the performance, pandemonium took over, the crowd refused to disperse, the festival’s organizers tried to cut off the show but once again were met with angry refusals to end this magical evening and the audience reaction went on and on and on: 5+ minutes on some recordings and that’s what I was listening to live.
A couple of weeks later as a result of this performance Duke appeared on the cover of Time magazine and his career took a great upturn.
And the weirdest thing of all is what you hear on this cut is not live, it was recorded at Columbia Records Studio in NY city on Monday July 9th 1956!
Incidentally there was a great documentary film of interest to jazz lovers of that era, it’s
Jazz on a Summer’s Day by Bert Stern: It’s the Newport Jazz Festival, 1958.
The film features performances by Jimmy Giuffre, Bob Brookmeyer, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Stitt, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Gerry Mulligan, Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Buck Clayton, Jo Jones, Eric Dolphy, Art Farmer, Max Roach and Mahalia Jackson. It was MC’d by Willis Conover.
If you’d like to see it in it’s entirety, it’s at: