Sunday, 31 July 2022

Duke Ellington and His Orchestra – Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue

While on a Newport Festival theme, two years before Anita O'Day's vocal calisthenics lulled the audience into a state of somnolent repose on a hot summer's day, the Duke Ellington Orchestra tore up the crowd with the stuff of legend. 'Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue' was or were two sides of a 78rpm release in 1937, at a time when the big bands ruled the airwaves and Duke Ellington's outfit had made the transition from the 'jungle music' of the Cotton Club to the most sophisticated representation of swing. When he announced the number to the festival crowd in his customary fashion, Ellington explained that the two elements would be separated by an 'interval' featuring his favourite tenor sax soloist, Paul Gonsalves. Little did he or the audience realise what was in store. It was not the kind of interval in which you go to the bar or buy a choc-ice from the Ice Cream lady.

In actual fact – and you'll have to imagine these words spoken in a vituperative Southern drawl by that splendid character actor beloved of Sam Peckinpah, Strother Martin, in his role as the mealy-mouthed, sadistic prison captain in the Paul Newman vehicle, Cool Hand Luke – what we've got here is a failure to find the original footage; what you might call a com-pro-mise. It seems that the event, unlike the 1958 edition, wasn't filmed and Ron Murvihill has 'assembled footage from other Ellington events as a videotrack in hopes of giving the historic performance new life.' He's done a great job. While it goes somewhat against the grain, nevertheless the music is as live as live can be and the performance is so darn important in the annals of jazz history that I'm prepared to let it go on this occasion. After all, apparently whenever subsequently asked when he was born, Edward Kennedy Ellington would answer that he was born on the 9th July, 1956.

By 1956, the Swing Era had given way to one of BeBop, post-Bop and West Coast cool jazz, usually purveyed by the kind of small ensemble that was much more economically viable. The big bands and orchestras were too darn big and costly to keep on the road. Somehow, though, the Duke managed to endure – partly perhaps because he didn't pay the band members what they were really worth. For all the ambitious new extended compositions like 'Such Sweet Thunder' and 'Black, Brown And Beige' that would define the Ellington approach in the 1950s and beyond – not to mention the 'Newport Jazz Festival Suite' that Ellington and his amanuensis and oft-unseen cohort, Billy Strayhorn, composed and arranged for this 1956 festival – it was, however, a struggle. The Duke's star was on the wane. While widely recognised as an exceptional musician and band leader, his reputation as America's greatest living composer had not yet been cemented.

This performance changed that. It's rather neat to think in terms of Gonsalves's interval as lifting his employer's orchestra out of its current diminuendo and into another of its crescendos. The customarily tasteful and elegant Paul Gonsalves really took to heart the Duke's instructions to blow for as long as he liked after the initial section by soloing for 27 choruses. If stretched on the rack, I still couldn't really sensibly explain what a chorus entails, but he sure blew for a long time and whipped up the crowd into the kind of frenzy that you might normally associate with a mid-Sixties Rolling Stones concert.

The 'Diminuendo' part is anything but low-key, illustrating what a very fine and surprisingly modern (in a Monkish sort of way) piano player Ellington was in his own right, and just how tight-yet-loose that band was. And then comes Gonsalves, giving his body and soul to the cause and coming across less like the successor to Ben Webster and more like an R&B honker of the Big Jay McNeely school (tempered, perhaps, by a cool, refreshing dash of Lester Young). The band sits back to enjoy the show while the rhythm section of Ellington and Jimmy Woode on bass and Sam Woodyard on drums spurs him along. But it's the audience that really stokes the fire. And here, alas, we'll have to use our imagination. As they get louder and more raucous by the chorus, the authorities apparently started to fidget. Witnesses describe how people stood on their chairs, danced and even rushed the stage – and remember that this was the Eisenhower era, when folks discovered television and consumed new gadgets and hated Communists. The police came onto the stage in an attempt to quieten things down and prevent the normally sedate representatives of 1950s America from blowing their collective top.

When Gonsalves lays down his horn and the band come back in for the 'Crescendo', there's a slight lull in the tempo at first before they start riffing like the Count Basie Orchestra and trumpeter Cat Anderson steps out front for some of his specialist stratospheric high notes. Cue the audience at around the 15-minute mark for a suitable reception bordering on high-steria.

Exciting as 'Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue' may be, it was a bit of a one-off and not particularly representative of the Ellington orchestra's sound. So I checked out the 1962 model's interpretation of one of the best loved of all Ellington compositions, 'Satin Doll'. It's worth it just for the Duke's curiously trim (for someone whose lacquered hair often sprawled over the collar and curled up at the ends) hairstyle with cute little quiff – no doubt specially coiffed for the occasion, rather than merely 'maintained' by his designated barber, trumpeter Rex Stewart. The band, however, seems a little stiff and wooden, perhaps because the performance was commissioned by the Goodyear tyre company as one of five short jazz films.

If you let it run on, to the next piece, you come up with another Paul Gonsalves vehicle, 'Blow By Blow' (not to be confused with Jeff Beck's classic album). It's not a number I know, but at four-and-a-half minutes, it's a nice compromise for anyone not willing to give themselves up to the quarter-hour shenanigans of the Newport performance. Although the footage is entirely genuine, it's not quite the real deal.

No, for all the compromise, it has to be this one. If it's true that Gonsalves didn't want to play the concert due to an alcoholic 'incident', he must have been very glad ultimately that his boss got him on stage. Immortality was his reward. The festival promoter, George Wein, described the concert as 'the greatest performance of Ellington's career... It stood for everything jazz had been and could be.' In the words of some YouTube commentators, 'This is one of the most exhilarating moments in the history of jazz.' 'This performance swings harder and more gloriously than anybody has ever swung before or since.' 'If you can't feel this... your [sic] not among the living!' 'If you can sit completely still through this song..., your heart has stopped & you must be dead.' Oh, and by the way, the legendary (or mythical?) platinum blonde woman who got up on stage to dance did not remove her blouse in the euphoria of it all. You'd have to wait till the next decade for that sort of thing.

No comments:

Post a Comment