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.
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.
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.
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.