Often regarded as the best performance of his career, in 1956, Duke Ellington and his band recorded their historic concert at the Newport Jazz Festival, revitalizing Ellington’s waning career. Jazz promoter George Wein describes the 1956 concert as “the greatest performance of Ellington’s career… It stood for everything that jazz had been and could be.”
The rise of bebop, the jazz style which was developed by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, brought about a decline in popularity for Ellington and his band. Duke and his orchestra were hardly the only ones to experience a fall from prominence; many big bands had folded completely by the mid-1950s. But Duke had kept his band and carried on, occasionally doing shows in ice-skating rinks to stay busy. Throughout the early 1950s, The Duke Ellington Orchestra toured Europe while Ellington was the primary means of financial support using his royalties from his hits of the 1920s to 1940s. At the time of the festival, Ellington and his band were unsigned, which only reminds us of how special this album will always be.
Columbia Records recorded the concert and soon released an album thereafter. The release of Ellington at Newport vaulted The Duke Ellington Orchestra back into the limelight. Duke appeared on the cover of Time soon after, and his resurgent popularity lasted for the duration of his days and beyond. Some of Duke’s best albums were released during the next decade and a half, until the effects of age and illness began to deteriorate and claim some of Duke’s band members and, in 1974, Ellington himself.
Controversially, in 1996, a tape was discovered in the annals of the Voice of America radio broadcasts – a tape that would change everything. It was revealed that the acclaimed 1956 album had actually been fabricated with studio performances blended with some live recordings and even artificial applause. It was determined that only about 40% of the 1956 recording was in fact live.
Ellington believed that the under-rehearsed festival suite had not been performed up to recording release standards and desired to have a more quality version on tape if it was to be made a record. Producer George Avakian acted accordingly and the band entered the studio immediately following the festival. Avakian mixed in the studio version with portions of the live performance. The applause was dubbed onto the original release to cover up the fact that Paul Gonsalves had been playing into the wrong microphone, often rendering it completely inaudible.
Fans at the Newport Jazz Festival did not initially receive Ellington and his band with exaltation, typical to the times and reflective of the decline in popularity that many bands suffered. Then, on a two section song, “Dimuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” Duke had the two sections connect with a sax solo by Paul Gonzalves and told him to play the solo as long as wanted to. While he usually only took a couple of choruses, Gonzalves took a 27 chorus solo that eventually had the crowd off its feet and dancing at this epic moment in jazz history. This changed the face of jazz solos in addition to providing Duke some new found success. Duke’s band continued in this popularity for 18 more years.
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About Brad Parmerter:
Brad Parmerter has almost 20 years experience in the music and entertainment industry as a writer, programmer, and merchandiser. He has professionally interviewed and photographed such artists as: Rush, Metallica, Celine Dion, Live, Phil Collins, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Live, Van Halen, Queensryche, Anna Nalick, Styx, Def Leppard, and many more.
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