Ellington, Newport and the American Century

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On July 7, 1956, Duke Ellington played the Newport Jazz Festival. Paul Gonsalves soloed for six minutes on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” the crowd exploded, an album was cut and our century — the American century, the Jazz century — found its high point.

Or, from our own site:

I may be force fitting a connection where there isn’t one … but I wonder if The Rise and Fall of America has anything to do with The Rise and Fall of SWING?

Shaman, in a comment to Open Source, August 15, 2006

More soon from Chris, who talks about Ellington as he would a friend.

Update, 8:09 PM, August 16, 2006

Chris here. In truth, Brendan, I think of Duke Ellington more nearly as a god. Certainly a god of American culture, way up there with Whitman, Melville, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Henry and William James, and the papa of the pantheon, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Three summers ago around the celebration of Emerson’s 200th birthday, in many conversations on the matter of: who was the Emerson of our lifetimes? it came clear to me anyway that my answer was Duke Ellington. I recall that Stanley Cavell nominated Frank Capra as his Emerson. Harold Bloom’s turned out to be Charlie Parker! But in a long chat with Professor Bloom on the subject, I think I trumped him with Duke:

Who speaks with Emerson’s range and affirmation in our lifetimes? I tried on Professor Bloom my notion that Duke Ellington cut his own original Emersonian figure for the 20th Century. An enabler who was both major composer and itinerant performance artist, in long forms and short, for dance halls and cathedrals, Ellington was a blues man of surpassing public style and inner ecstasies. It intrigues me that both Emerson and Ellington were towering individualists set each in his own band of eccentric voices — Ellington in his orchestra, Emerson in the Concord circle. Harold Bloom was wide open to transferring the modern Emerson search into the music world, but his taste is for the blazing solo voices from Louis Armstrong to Sonny Rollins, with Charlie Parker presiding…

Christopher Lydon Interviews Harold Bloom: Culture Gods from Emerson to Bird, September 3, 2003

Then came Stanley Crouch in his new book, Considering Genius, compiling his jazz criticism with a marvelous introductory essay on the formative, foundational power of a few records in his youth, and mine, most notably: Erroll Garner’s Concert by the Sea; Miles Davis’s Round About Midnight; and Duke’s amazing Ellington at Newport. No, kids, the Fifties weren’t all Eisenhower.

Fifty summers after the Newport Suite and Paul Gonzalves’ 27 choruses of blues, we’re going savor a golden moment in American life with Stanley Crouch; the Columbia record producer George Avakian; and with Duke Ellington’s ever-eloquent and all-witnessing nephew Michael James. It spurs us on to be reminded by our friend on the blog, Shaman, that the best in our culture feels ever and always threatened by the worst. Shaman took the initiative this week to suggest a show on Swing, and the death thereof. When I emailed him about our Duke show, he wrote me today:

Yes, Duke Ellington at the creation of Swing. And Sinatra perhaps the last true believer/evangelist? His death in 1998 seems awfully long ago. If we can’t swing what are we?

In the sad, deep swamp of New Orleans I worry that the last gasp of the uniquely American swinging spirit is sinking while the rest of the country shrugs (Ring-a-ding Dang!).

I’m looking forward to your show on Duke and that ever graceful, hopeful sound. Too damn rare, in these Swingless neo-con times! That will be my foot tapping in the background!

Shaman, in an email to Open Source, August 16, 2006

Stanley Crouch

Music critic

Author, most recently, Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz

Michael James

Jazz historian

Nephew of Duke Ellington

George Avakian

Former producer, Columbia Records

Eric Jackson

Host, “Jazz With Eric in the Evening,” WGBH radio

Extra Credit Reading

Tover Van Ooteldonk, Ellington at Newport + 50 Years, Eating the Apple, August 17, 2006: “I was there 50 years ago on a warm summer night when Duke Ellington and Paul Gonsalves set the jazz world on fire…” [cross-posted as a comment on our site]

The Daily Growler, It’s Time to Bust a Move, The Daily Growler, April 28, 2006: “Duke forced Paul to take long solos on purpose, to punish him for coming to the gigs drunk out of his skull. By the end of this solo, Paul is sober as the most sober judge to ever judge.”

Rebel Pundit, 50th Anniversary: Ellington at Newport, Rebel Pundit, July 4, 2006: “Jazz itself represents the best of what this country is supposed to be about…fashioning resistance through expression and creativity in pure democratic form. Jazz….is more democratic than the U.S.A.”

Carl Abernathy, Ellington and Brubeck = Fire and Ice, Cahl’s Juke Joint, May 19, 2006: “One of my best friends thinks Duke Ellington’s ‘Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue??? from the ???Ellington at Newport 1956’ album is the hottest 14 minutes of jazz ever recorded. I’m not going to argue. But I’d suggest that Dave Brubeck’s ‘Blues for Newport’ from the ‘Last Set at Newport’ album may be the coolest 16 minutes in jazz.”

BBC News, Newport festival fever , BBC News, April 27, 1999: “Just before midnight with half the audience on the way out the door, the depressed and frustrated band took the stage.”

[With audio clips of the Paul Gonsalves solo].

Related Content

  • That Gonsalves Solo is the bitchingest solo in all of jazz–the power and the might and length of it set the stage for everything which followed. One of my absolute favorite albums of all time–ever. Not until Mingus was there a leader with as much zizz as Ellington who could make live music swing like the devil round a lampost.

  • That’s pretty patriarchial pantheon you’ve got going on. May I suggest that if Emerson is God Harriet Tubman is Moses? I’d also like to nominate Isadora Duncan as the American Isis.

  • Old Nick

    Two years ago next month I moved from Michigan to Western Washington, and into the KUOW (Seattle) broadcast region. I came out here with two big musical loves: rock, soul, and blues (the ‘folk music’ of my Detroit/Ann Arbor area youth and adulthood), and 17th, 18th, and early 19th century music played on period instruments (especially Mozart).

    Note that I haven’t mentioned jazz.

    But I’m a lifelong public radio listener, so inevitably on Saturday nights out here, the strains of 1920’s, -30’s, -40’s, and -50’s music began ear-worming into my mind. Because for five hours every Saturday night, KUOW becomes something akin to Swing City in a program called ‘The Swing Years and Beyond’ ( http://www.kuow.org/programs/swing_years.asp —check it out: it streams all week long).

    Within half a year, I was hooked. A few months later, I began acquiring swing-era music CD’s. The Mills Brothers and Cab Calloway were my first faves.

    But then I found the Duke (yes, it was nearly like ‘finding’ a religious prophet!). The “Proper Box� (that’s an import set from Britain) of 93 tunes on four discs. 1926-1949. http://www.cduniverse.com/productinfo.asp?pid=2036307&style=music&cart=379525174&BAB=E


    It would be pointless (and nearly endless) to try to describe in detail the 93 gems. So instead I’ll make a comparison: in their careful scoring and sonic architecture (perfect balance of melody, harmony, and rhythm) these Ellington masterpieces are every bit as peerless as any given Mozart quintet or nocturne. Remember that: “Mozartean�.

    That’s Ellington, even though he composed a century and a half later, and for a much different style.

    Now I know why they call him ‘The Greatest Composer of the 20th Century.’

    It’s not hyperbole.

    Not at ALL.

    Now Chris, if you’re taking requests, how about “Transbluency�? Or “Prelude to a Kiss�? (both 1938) Or the 1950 version of “Sophisticated Lady?� (It’s long, though.)

    Regardless of what masterpieces you choose to play, I expect this will be a show not merely worthy of a podcast download, but worthy of burning onto CD.

    Thanks in advance!

  • hurley

    I worked for a time on the annual European jazz tour, and remember Art Blakey saying that when you signed up with the Duke, it was basically, “Bye Mom, see you in twenty years.” Much knowing laughter among all the grizzled musicians gathered round.

  • katemcshane

    The first time I heard the album, TAKE THE A TRAIN, I felt a thrill that was beyond most pleasure in my life at that time. I listened to that CD almost exclusively for many months. The war in Iraq had begun that year. I thought a lot about aggression, the way we accept the fact that it wins in all interactions, on all levels, the way we’re not above using it even with children, the way we teach children that this is the way to live, that they have to accept it in their lives. It is linked with authoritarianism and to question authority is labeled an issue, an example of someone’s maladjustment. I listened to Duke Ellington announce the musicians in his band. I listened to the appreciation of them, the love for them in his voice. He had a wonderful voice. I love to hear him say, “West Indian Pancake” on that album, because I hear so much about him as a person in his voice. In this country, for the most part, art is considered an elite luxury, unnecessary in schools, subversive in adults. Jazz, in general, and Ellington, in particular, represents extraordinary triumph over everything in this culture, in particular, that tries to beat the soul back into a corner. Listening to jazz during a year when I was unemployed and about to lose a place to live gave me strength and hope I found in very few other places in my life and I will always be grateful. I’m so happy you’re doing a show on him.

  • rc21

    To Katemcshane; I’m happy for your love of jazz what it has to do with Iraq is beyond me. As to calling art an elite luxuary i’m not sure what you mean.unnecessary in schools,subversive in adults. Please explain.

    Ive always found that music is appreciated and enjoyed by all segments of society. rich,poor, black, white,, liberal,conservative,it makes no difference.

  • zeke

    Chris above: It spurs us on to be reminded by our friend on the blog, Shaman, that the best in our culture feels ever and always threatened by the worst.

    In this context I frequently think of your wonderful conversation with Phillip Roth in which you discussed popular culture. I can’t quote the exact exchanges but maybe you have them somewhere. The point, as I recall it, was that the presence of crap in the culture is not in and of itself a problem, the good will win out. It bcomes a problem when it becomes a lava flow.

    I’ve come to think that the distinction between the good stuff and the crap starts with the motivation for creating it: are you really trying to express something or are you mainly trying to sell something.

    Chris trenchently identifies Duke Ellington as both major composer and itinerant performer, required to give them what they want. This probably required him to walk a fine line. I wonder if sometime in the show the guests might speak to how he managed to do so without becoming either irrelevant on the one hand or cheapened on the other.

  • chrisnb

    I was there 50 years ago on a warm summer night when Duke Ellington and Paul Gonsalves set the jazz world on fire. I was 18 years old with an enormous appetite for jazz – it was my obsession. Elvis was too crude for me — I loved Bird, Satchmo, the MJQ, and the the great swing bands.

    On that night I was out in deep right field 300 feet from the stage, digging the sounds from the master. After the Newport Festival Suite and the marvelous Jeep’s Blues, Duke announced the Dimuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue separated by an interval by Paul Gonsalves. After a rocking Dimuendo, Paul Gonsalves started to blow crazy on his tenor sax and lit up the audience. Immediately, the crowd started to yell, to jump up and down waving their hands. The sound of the crowd drowned out the music except for Paul Gonsalves. He blew 27 choruses, with the crowd going wild.

    When the Crescendo in Blue finished, the crowd was still wild, shouting more, more! I feared that this could turn into a riot. George Wein came out and talked to Duke. He looked scared. Duke pushed him aside and continued the concert. The band took an hour to cool down the crowd, finishing up with Skin Deep. I thought that Skin Deep would rile up the crowd, but no, Duke judged it correctly. After Skin Deep the crowd left and dispersed peacefully.

    Later I got a copy of the album Ellington at Newport. I liked Jeep’s Blues the best, but not the Paul Gonsalves solo. The crowd noise was muted, and I could actually hear the rythm section. It lacked the exitement of the actual concert.

    Over the last fifty years my tastes have changed. I am more into folk music and new age. But Elington still represents the peak of musical perfection.

    — Chris from New Bedford

  • joel

    How about “Such Sweet Thunder” or “Star Crossed Lovers” or such from his suite, SUCH SWEET THUNDER?

  • Shaman

    rc21: “I’m happy for your love of jazz what it has to do with Iraq is beyond me.”

    I gotta kick this up a notch. This is deep.

    I think the fate of Swing has everything to do with the fate of America.

    The end of Swing (yes, it’s dead) is INDIRECTLY why we got into Iraq. It is why RUMSFEILD is still in office and why we don’t impeach BUSH and why we don’t throw out everyone in CONGRESS for their Kaleidoscopic failures. It is even why we don’t even try to do something about Health Care.

    Simply put – America has become a country of FEAR and PESSIMISM. This is the complete opposite of Swing!

    Whether American’s know it or not, rest of the world considers Jazz to be the most amazing AMERICAN gift to humanity next to our Constitution.

    The soaringly optimistic, graceful, deeply physical, deeply intellectual, PURELY and UNIQUELY AMERICAN MADE sound of Swing was – for 40 years – the sound of American greatness. Which makes our current state of affairs all the more painful.

    Ask a European what they most love about America and they’ll say Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Especially Louis!

    JFK could SWING,

    LBJ could Swing,

    Nixon couldn’t SWING but he was crushed by Americans who knew how to Swing,

    Reagan could Swing and

    DAMN sure CLINTON absolutely could Swing.

    And how about those RED SOX? See how it works?

    George Bush, his Fox News Alerts and his Red States are totally AND completely without Swing!

    To see how far America has fallen one only need walk through the rural villages of France outside of Paris or those in Provence, where Swing (and other Jazz) is finally DYING HARD – eclipsed completely by America’s latest export – the bleak, pessimistic sound of European made, America-inspired, Rap.

    Sorry, Hip-Hop fans. Maybe Rap is ‘keepin’ it real’

    But, It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that SWING!

  • Shaman

    I forgot to add that I think the messages of Rap may come uncomfortably close to the uniquely French intellectual movement known as Existentialism, which, among other things, offered the world ‘No Exit’.

    The French populace was just ‘dying’ for something more.

    No wonder they loved Swing!

  • Old Nick

    A question for those like me who listen to the live stream online instead of over the air:

    Are you getting anything from WGBH?

    For the second day in a row, the GBH window ‘pretends’ it’s playing, but no sound comes from my speakers. And it’s not my system I don’t think, because I can get the live stream of KXOT just fine.



  • jazzman

    Duke and his shadow Billy Strayhorn composed some of the finest standards and contributed innovative arrangements to the Great American Songbook.

    While an incredible pianist in his own right, he preferred to give his sidemen the spotlight and was content to remain in the rhythm section, so many people haven’t recognized his truly spectacular blowing chops.

    Swing is still very much alive (there are hardly any Jazz bands that don’t include Ellington/Strayhorn standards in their repertoire) – it’s just that Jazz artists of today have a larger canon of rhythmic genres on which to improvise. Notwithstanding Shaman’s metaphor of Swing is GOD it’s still only a rhythm.

    There are still some heavy trad Swing masters playing today, check out tenorman Scott Hamilton or Phil Woods – arguably 2 of the swingingest cats playing today. When Phil was playing with Benny Goodman (The King of Swing), once Benny yelled at Phil, saying “I don’t like your attitude, Woods, that you’re the only cat that can swing in this band.�

    Hi – to Old Nick (to whom Ellington is a god)

  • Old Nick

    Hi – to Old Nick (to whom Ellington is a god)

    Thanks jazzman. I wuz hopin’ yu’d stop by today.

    yes, Ellington is one (of many) of my musical deities…


    well, until 9:00 Pm pacific, that is.

    Looking forward to it too.

  • joel

    Old Nick – I brought up GBH on line just before the show’s end, but as usual they were more concerned with money that with service. They were fund raising! Finally a little of Eric’s piece came on but it was all out of sync with the on air bit on WCAI (a subsidiary of GBH.)


  • joel

    There’s some nice stuff above, but it seems to me that it all could have been obviated if we just listened to an hour of the MUSIC. Why talk about greatness when the greatness is there to be experienced?


  • From our pal Joel Cohen, the “trobador” of Boston Camerata and Camerata Mediterranea:

    Chris, I am loving this program as it is going on via my FM tuner.

    I had the enormous good fortune of meeting Ellington backstage at Newport, about an hour before his history making set and the famous Paul Gonsalves solo. I was a socially immature fourteen and I watched him charm into helplessness the middle-aged, Jewish-liberal lesbian lady whose charge I was. “Well, I could never have imagined,” said the Duke, “that my good friend Judge Handel had such an elegant, magnificently beautiful daughter,” he crooned to her before offering me his signature on the Festival program book. Wide-eyed, I took all of this in and filed it away for future reflection.

    I must have 15 Ellington CD’s in my collection, but oddly enough not the Newport concert. I think the near-riot in the audience must have scared me — I was only a little kid after all. Now after your show I have to acquire that one too.

    I guess along with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen, Ellington ties as the most powerful musical personality I ever managed to encounter.

    But neither of those two French worthies ever gave me a lesson in how to seduce a pretty woman….

  • John Andrew

    Old Nick: I found out a couple weeks ago that KXOT.org was having difficulties with their programming contract with PRI and have substituted a different program in the Open Source time slot. I figured they would have notified Chris and company about this. Obviously they didn’t. When Brendan reads this he can double check it and fix the website to suit.

    Rather than listening to the rebroadcast version via KUOW-FM at 9 PM PDT, I have been getting it live online via http://www.wgbh.org Monday through Thursday.

    I bought that Columbia recording of ‘Ellington at Newport’ in 1959 or 1960 when I was at Uni and I practically wore it out. I still have that original recording, but no stylus; though I having since found the tape version. Someday I may look for a CD of it. I still get goose-pimples listening to “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”.

  • Old Nick

    Joel and John Andrew: thanks for your concern and advice.

    Unfortunately, it’s worse than I realized: it IS my system. I stole a few minutes on a different computer in this building, and the WGBH stream was working normally.

    However, I have no idea why I can hear the stream from KUOW/KXOT but not GBH. Worse yet, while I’m ‘streaming the silence’, the streaming signal is nevertheless jamming up my piece-of-crap 20k rural phone line internet connection, slowing to a crawl all other internet business I want to conduct simultaneously. Now, when I’m receiving the sound, I can live with the crawl. But I can’t live with it just for silence.

    So, the stream is coming into my hardware, but something in my software is blocking the sound from the speakers.

    How dismal.

    Guess I’ll have to revert to being an exclusively time-delayed-on-air listener again. And permanently – unless anyone out there recognizes the symptoms and can finger the cause of my problem. (For what it’s worth, my anti-virus protection has lately taken to shutting itself off for no apparent reason, too. Coincidence? Beats me. I’m a tech-world Luddite.)

    Hope the show was great, and I’ll be listening at midnight Eastern. (KUOW airs it at 9 Pacific.)

  • Old Nick

    Now you’ve done it.

    Now I’ve gotta add Ellington after the early 50’s to my already floorboard-sagging CD collection. I’d contentedly figured the Duke of the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s was as good as it gets. Then you ROSers had the temerity to play the ’56 Newport stuff.

    Thanks. Thanks a lot.

    Some of us are poor, you know… 😉

  • Clinton could swing. You might even say it was because he was such a swinger the republicans really wanted to crush him. What about Gore? I don’t know about Gore and jazz/swing but Tipper had some real problems with rock n’ roll.

  • silvio.rabioso


    A strong strain of East-Coast hip-hop, especially during the 1990s, founds its inspiration in the jazz albums of its parents.

    Let me give you the first few lines off the first track of A Tribe Called Quest’s masterful album The Low End Theory…by the way, the track begins with a Ron Carter baseline:

    Back in the days

    when I was a teenager

    before I had status,

    before I had a pager

    you could find the Abstract

    listening to hip hop

    my Pops used to say

    it reminded him of bebop

    Well I said that Daddy don’t you know

    things go in cycles…

    And who has done more to popularize Blue Note with the younger generation in the last 5 years than Madlib? Although his “Shades of Blue” might not sample Ellington, he can swing.

  • BJ


    I’ve been meditating on Swing since I heard you on the show. Maybe swingitude, with its implication of an innate sense of rhythm, grace and ease in navigating in the world, should be a criterion for judging all politicians. But try as I might, I can’t see any evidence for LBJ’s swingitude. He worked through domination–demanding that staff accompany him into the john while he defecated, lifting his beagles by the ears, humiliating political opponents. He seemed every bit as graceless and ill at ease as Nixon.

  • Shaman

    BJ, you may have a good point that LBJ didn’t really swing afterall.

    But the optimism of ‘The Great Society” is where I think I was going. That was a swinging ambition – if flawed (like Charlie Parker himself)

    LBJ’s Swingitude is also badly shaken, of course, by Vietnam. Perhaps RFK would have shown this contrast had he lived. The name Kennedy practically equals Swingitude!

    And Silvio Rabioso,

    I deeply respect your point and I thank you for posting those lyrics.

    You have put up a perfect suggestion about ATC Quest’s work and deft use of the Ron Carter baseline. You have a good point about some very honest, and educational Hip Hop. There is hope in the lyrics (and therefore swing potential) regarding loss of something “back in the days” and that “things go in cycles”.

    But the thing that jumps out in the lyric is ‘Pager’ and the drug-dealing connotations of that word. I understand IT IS A DESPERATELY HONEST LYRIC. Rap is great at honest feelings of longing, anger, facts of life, keeping things real, and so on.

    “Before I had a pager” suggests we are listening to a drug dealer yearning for a way out of some life he is somehow stuck in.

    Lots of Jazz players did drugs – Heroin, everything – but the music soared despite the drugs.

    Crime doesn’t pay – and hip hop nobly repeats this message often yet it gets caught up in the paradox of its own circularity of celebrating crime anyway.

    And crime don’t swing.

    Just sink yourself into the magnificent “Paradise Lost” (which ultimately swings by the way) for the liveliest ruminations anywhere on the banality of rulebreaking.

    Al Capone didn’t swing. Enron didn’t swing. Halliburton doesn’t swing.

    “The Godfather” can’t swing

    but the Movie, “The Godfather”, ABSOLUTLEY SWINGS.

    For example, a looter may need to rob to live.

    It is honest to face this – it is a fact – it is REAL. I won’t deny it.

    A drug dealer may see himself trapped in a social paradox with no exit.

    Hip-hop is repleat with such honesty about drugs, power, violence, racism, class and, as in your excellent example, some real education.

    Word UP! Remember KRS-1?

    But the Rap and Hip-Hop sound speaks first and foremost to the futility of its world. Don’t you think?

    And futility don’t swing.

  • sean mccarthy

    Ellington is an American treasure. It’s too bad that this fact is lost to almost anyone under the age of sixty. But, here is Seattle youth jazz is alive and well. I heard kids from Roosevelt high school perform Ellington’s version of the Nutcracker. These incredibly skilled kids brought tears to my eyes with their playing. The music is still alive!

    When we talk about Ellington we cannot forget Billy Strayhorn. Take a listen to Ellington’s tribute album to Billy “…and His Mother Called Him Bill” Billy was a genies in his own right. His influence is almost invisible at times because of his ability to channel Duke in his writing. He did not get credit for his contributions in the early years although Duke always gave him his due.

    One thing about The Newport festival – none of the great moments there would have ever occured without Elaine Lorillard. It was her passion for jazz that was the seed for all of it. She came up with the concept and convinced her husband to finance it. Jazz had never before been performed in an outdoor festival setting. They ran it as a non-profit. It lost money. Lot’s of money. Thank you Elaine.