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].

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