in Blue: Ellington at Newport ’56
John Fass Morton
Rutgers University Press, 336 pages, $34.95
Duke Ellington was fond of noting that his band was born in
Newport in 1956. Despite a career that stretched back some
30 years before that and an immense surge of fame during the
big-band era, Ellington’s band became a mid-’50s millstone,
one of the very few that didn’t vanish entirely as post-war
economics and changing popular tastes took their toll.
Jazz was still hip in the ’50s, but even jazz had seen its
share of change. As bop gave way to cool, ensembles dwindled
in size. The mainstream audience moved on.
Then a small, wholly unpredictable miracle occurred. This
lumbering dinosaur of a band, verging on bankruptcy, hit a
groove one summer night in Newport and transported its audience,
made the cover of Time magazine, and issued a hit record
of the event, a record that’s stayed in print ever since.
It was Goodman at the Palomar, Hendrix at Woodstock: a defining
moment. Ellington at Newport, the record, was studied
the way Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Potato Head Blues”
was studied. The 22-chorus sax solo by Paul Gonsalves joined
pianist Jess Stacy’s “Sing Sing Sing” solo (at Benny Goodman’s
1938 Carnegie Hall concert) as one of those transcendent moments
for which you’re thankful that a microphone was nearby.
One of the significant salutes of Ellington’s 100th birthday,
in 1999, was the second CD reissue of this album, this time
revealing that much of the original recording had been re-created
in the Columbia studio shortly after the concert to compensate
for the band’s lack of preparation. “Diminuendo and Crescendo
in Blue,” the Gonsalves showpiece, was authentic, but not
Not only was the real concert recording finally issued: It
came out in stereo, a process achieved by painstakingly synchronizing
Columbia’s recording with a tape made by Voice of America
with a different microphone. The reissue went fantastically
over-budget and caused an in-house scandal at Sony Legacy
(the then-current face of Columbia), a saga that’s not covered
in John Fass Morton’s otherwise extraordinarily comprehensive
Backstory in Blue. It won’t hurt to have the recording
on hand as you read this, because you’ll be inspired to listen
to the concert again and again as each successive chapter
gives a new gloss on the subject.
It begins with the Newport Jazz Festival, an unlikely event
for such a staid locale—but we meet local socialite Elaine
Lorillard, a pianist whose classical training was thrown aside
when a boyfriend introduced her to jazz. Even after marrying
wealthy Louis Lorillard and settling in Newport, her passion
for the music was undimmed.
The couple tapped broadcaster-turned-impresario George Wein
to put together a festival, and Wein drew on many connections
he’d made through his record label, Storyville. (It’s Wein
you hear on the Ellington at Newport reissue, yelling
at Duke to get off the stage as the concert ran overtime.
And you’ll enjoy hearing Ellington fake him out.)
Wein brought in Columbia Records producer George Avakian,
and it was the latter who would woo Ellington back to his
label with an invitation to write and record an extended work
at the 1956 festival, at a time when live jazz recordings
were almost unheard of.
The book takes a close look at the Ellington band as it existed
in that era, with its store of talent, unique personnel—and
fading fortunes. Getting a new, lengthy work finished and
rehearsed in time for the concert proved almost too much to
ask, and the narrative gives it all the suspense of a good
One more element sets up the tale: the story of Elaine Anderson,
whose unexpected, unbridled dancing fanned the crowds excitement
during the Ellington set, and whose image was immortalized
on the record jacket.
It all comes together in a skillfully woven saga of talent
and opportunity, sociology and surprise. Listening to the
concert, hearing Johnny Hodges flub his trademark glissandos
and what may have been the band’s worst-ever performance of
its own theme song, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” it’s a wonder they
got through the set, never mind turned the world of music
on its ear. Now I understand the phenomenon much better.
Great art deserves ex haustive studies. The polyglot nature
of American culture is often difficult to study strand by
strand, but Morton’s book not only does an admirable job of
untwining the many threads that led to Ellington’s Newport
triumph but also reminds us that music like this is important
enough to warrant such a scholarly examination as this one.