The mid 1950’s were not the best of times for Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. While dominating jazz from the late 1920s through to the 40s, his post war recordings suffered in comparison. In addition, changes in popular culture were putting downward pressure on the band’s popularity. The advent of television was changing behavior with people staying home instead of going to the swing ballrooms that had big bands playing for dancers. In addition, rock’n’roll – which would soon displace jazz as America’s, and the world’s, popular music – was beginning to advance across the country.
Ellington was down but not out. On July 7th, 1956, at the Newport Jazz festival at Freebody Park, Rhode Island, the Duke Ellington Orchestra played a gig for the ages. Thunderstorms had delayed the start of Duke’s set and Ellington was worried that many fans would leave before or during his set. The show started uneventfully until Ellington called for what was a new arrangement of two older tunes now arranged as a medley called Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue. The piece featured a solo by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves and on this occasion, he played a solo that nearly caused a riot and becameonly famous in the annals of jazz history.
That night, Gonsalves, who hadn’t played the piece in a while, and was initially uncertain of his way around it – played 27 improvised choruses in a style more R&B then bebop. It was an amazing example of a musician playing in a way that can be described as transcendent. The audience responded, with the normally seated crowd spontaneously bursting into a frenzy of dancing, standing on chairs, and audience members rushing the stage. In a review of the show for Down Beat magazine, the critic Leonard Feather, wrote: “Here and there in the reduced, but still multitudinous crowd, a couple got up and started jitterbugging. Within minutes, the whole of Freedom Park was transformed as if struck by a thunderbolt … hundreds of spectators climbed up on their chairs to see the action; the band built the magnificent arrangement to its perennial peak and the crowd, spent, sat limply wondering what could follow this.”
Ellington’s reputation was rejuvenated overnight with the performance earning one of the loudest ovations in Newport festival history, and on the strength of it, the bandleader made the cover of Time magazine a short time later. That night inaugurated a period of creativity that lasted until Ellington’s death in 1974.
This song, along with the other songs from the performances, were released as a live recording which became a big hit for Ellington and helped revive his career.
Duke Ellington Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue
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