Friday, November 02, 2012

The Story of Ellington at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival

The last few years have seen a spate of books centered around a record album, telling the story about the artists and how the specific album came about and its impact. For example, Ashley Kahn has provided wonderful volumes devoted to Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme. John Fass Morton’s new book, Backstory in Blue: Ellington at Newport ‘56 (Rutgers University Press), on one level is the story of the classic live recording by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, but it goes even deeper into social history to examine not simply how the recording happened but also discuss the impact of the Festival performance.

The performance at Newport is recognized as helping revive Ellington’s prominence in the American music scene and Morton provides a valuable and concise sketch of Ellington’s career including his emergence in New York during the twenties, the prominent part he played in the Swing era, and how he was affected by the decline of the big bands and shift in the direction of popular music and the recording career including Ellington’s aspirations which related to the writing and performance/recording of longer compositions, yet no longer enjoying the financial success allowing him to maintain the same level of a band. 

By 1955, Ellington had to accept a six week stint at the Aquacades in Flushing Meadows, site of the 1939 World’s Fair which also led to him having to replace several band members lacking a local union card. At the same time Ellington was frustrated with the record companies. While Columbia, which was popularizing the new lp form, enabled Ellington to record extended works including the now highly regarded Masterpieces, and Ellington Uptown, they were not commercial successes. and frustrated with the two major labels, Victor and Columbia, he signed with Capital but again met little success. Ellington was an emcee at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, foreshadowing his performance the next year and by then had resigned with Columbia where he was reunited with George Avakian who had produced Masterpieces and had also produced successful recordings by Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong, and was behind the recording of Ellington and others in 1956.

Morton weaves together Avakian’s biography along with that of the members of the 1956 Ellington Band, the most interesting of which was tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves (of Cape Verdean descent), the birth and early history of the Newport Jazz Festivals and Elaine Anderson, the blonde lady whose dance during Paul Gonsalves legendary tenor solo that was part of the legend of that July 1956 evening. It is fascinating to learn that Elaine Lorillard, wife of an heir of a tobacco fortune, helped establish the festival in the most unlikely setting, a high society community. Then she helped sustain the festival against local opposition until riots in the mid-sixties suspended the Newport Festivals (which had grown to include Folk as well as Jazz. This is where George Wein first started producing festivals, and there were a number of interesting tidbits in the story including the fact that Wein created what we know as the photographer’s pit for the first Newport Jazz Festival, something many working press at festivals take for granted.

We get to the magic evening and the performance of Ellington and others on the bill that night. Ellington’s long-extended original work, Newport Jazz Festival Suite had received lukewarm applause, and recognizing this he launched into Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, with an interval where he would play piano before calling forth Gonsalves who launched into one of the most celebrated tenor saxophone blues solos of all time, which launched the audience as the band was spurred on by Jo Jones of a rolled newspaper to push them on. All the while the audience's enthusiasm kept growing.

Elaine Anderson had started dancing in the aisle near the stage while Gonsalves kept preaching the blues. Her dance was captured by the photographers in the photo pit and were included in coverage of the event as well as on the album cover when the album Ellington at Newport ‘56 was issued. At the time her identity was not known, but Morton was able to uncover her story of a one-time Hollywood hopeful starlet who had settled into the somewhat frustrating live of a wife and mother. 

And while all this is going on, Avakian and others are dealing with the fact Gonsalves is not playing directly into the mike being used to record his performance (but fortunately into a microphone used by Voice of America for foreign broadcast and the recording of which years later would be used in some later reissues of the album). Morton then tells about the performances aftermath, including the release of the live recording, the impact of its release and press coverage of Ellington’s Newport performance that led to the revitalization of his big band. He then tells what happened subsequently to the participants.

Given the rich historical tapestry, there are places one might feel bogged down in detail, but one be hard-pressed to find anything material to be excised.  Reading this the story seems to take over and the reader settles in for the ride. Washington post book critic Jonathan Yardley authored the book’s introduction and he notes that “I have been blessed in many ways, probably more than I deserve, with a richly rewarding private life and a small but gratifying public one, but that night in Newport stands alone and apart.” It is to Morton’s credit that he is able to convey some sense of what made that night so unique and memorable. This book will make those having the album, listen to it a new, and for others hopefully lead them to discover that one magical evening in Newport, Rhode Island. 

I was provided an advance copy of the book from a publicist. My review originally appeared in the April 2009 jazz & Blues Report (Issue 315) to which I have made some stylistic edits.

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