To see the Ellington Orchestra live was a very moving and wholly theatrical experience, with each musician a player with his own script, and his own entrances and exits. Unless you were lucky enough to have seen Ellington in concert, and I was, all that remains are the recordings, with two that I believe give some idea of the man, and the musicians who played for him in the 1950s.
At the start of that decade Duke Ellington and his Orchestra still topped the Metronome Jazz Poll; in fact they even topped the Popular Music Poll. But by 1956, with Elvis Presley taking the world by storm, Ellington’s career seemed to be on the slide, that is until that year’s Newport Jazz Festival, which by then was only a couple of years old but already seemed to be on its last legs, due to a lack of interest by the public, and the inability to attract what few jazz stars there were.
Ellington agreed to be the major draw of 1956, writing a specially commissioned work, Festival Junction, which did get the interest of the declining jazz audience. And what that audience experienced on that rainy summers afternoon fifty years ago was both historical in how jazz, Ellington, and his sidesmen, would be perceived thereafter. All we have now of course is the remarkable recording of that festival.
If any of you have the original LP of Ellington’s contribution to the Newport Jazz Festival of 1956 — as I do — hang onto it because it’s worth a small fortune. What it’s not worth is listening to. So go and put the original LP in the bank and invest in the 2 CD set, Ellington (Complete) At Newport, that came out originally in 1999.
The original live festival recording used just two microphones that allowed most of the solo work to be hidden behind the incredible decibel force of the orchestra, with later studio re-takes added as so called ‘live’ festival tracks.
These two CDs put all of this to rights, and they include all of the material that was actually recorded on the day — all enhanced by the live Voice of America radio broadcast tapes that were discovered in the early 1990s, which have been cleverly spliced into the new commercial recordings — plus the latter studio stuff (with the added, and fake, audience atmospherics taken out) put into the correct playing order of the day and listed clearly for what they are — studio takes. The whole thing gives a clear idea of how brilliant and evolutionary, not to say revolutionary, the Ellington Orchestra still was half a century ago.
But the most satisfying aspect of these CDs is that for the first time we are able to hear, in all its digitally re-mastered glory, the legendary 27 chorus tenor sax solo of Paul Gonzalves (who blows the equivalent of a Shakespeare sonnet every ten seconds) in the interval between Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue that sends not only the audience but the other members of the band into a 4/4 frenzy. Listen to it at full blast and you’ll understand why.
Three and bit years after Newport, on December 2nd, 1959, Duke Ellington went into the recording studio with a band that still included such stalwarts as Johnnie Hodges, Paul Gonzalves, and Harry Carney, with the added new blood of trumpeter and violinist, Ray Nance, reed player Jimmy Hamilton, trombonist Britt Woodman, and trumpeter Clarke Terry, driven by that most propulsive of drummers, Sam Woodyard.
What came out of the Columbia Studios on East 30th Street, New York, between the hours of midnight, and 8am — and released as Duke Ellington — Blues In Orbit — is perhaps one of the most accomplished, swinging, and beautifully recorded albums the Duke Ellington Orchestra has probably ever made.
Even forty-five years after its creation it still sounds as fresh as the night the tracks were laid down. I defy anyone, jazz fan or otherwise, not to be moved, and invigorated by it.
Just four years after Blues In Orbit was recorded I saw Duke Ellington in concert for the first time in Britain. It was a freezing, snowy, January night, and the venue was the splendid Birmingham Town Hall, with the sense of occasion almost too much for the fifteen-year-old version of myself to bear, especially with a line-up that was virtually the same as on the above recordings.
When the lights came up on the bandstand there was just one man, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, playing the opening theme to Take The A Train, and only then, and gradually, did the rest of the band slowly wander on, take their places and join in, and only when everyone was in place and swinging Strayhorn’s signature tune like I’d never heard it before, did the Duke wander on, sit at the piano, crash out half a dozen chords which brought the band to a thundering, perfectly timed halt. It was an object lesson in perceived carelessness that gradually, and very deliberately, turned itself into a master class of musical professionalism.