Yes, it all happened. Yes, the band played the gig, and yes, there was a foxy blonde in a tight red dress near the front. But how big a part she played in this cannot be accurately determined, and as there is no one we can ask about it now, we are reduced to a consideration of the facts. Leave us proceed.
Swing Music was the pop music of its day and its day became popular in the late 1920’s and remained popular through the 1930’s, when big bands started playing the swing and the Big Band Era was upon them. One of the great big bands, of course, featured the sophisticated stylings of Duke Ellington, who was, of course, one of the greats (can’t say it enough!). Ellington hired only the best players and they were one of the most respected bands of their day. However, that day had been in the 1930’s and 40’s, and their day had passed by the early 1950’s. In mid- decade, rock ‘n’ roll emerged and started sucking all the air out of the big bands’ tires, whose leaders were now having trouble keeping all those players on the road, in hotels, restaurants, etc.
Ellington’s band had been among the most famous, but now even the Duke was accepting gigs in weird venues, like an ice-skating show in Queens, to stay alive. By this point, Ellington was paying the band from his own pocket, with money he earned on royalties from his work in the 30’s and 40’s. Ellington had not only lost some of his star players by then, he’d admitted he was operating at a loss, and he didn’t even have a recording contract. Hard times, indeed, were upon the Duke, so I imagine he was surprised when George Wein, producer of the Newport Jazz Festival, not only booked him for his 1956 shows, he booked him for the prestigious closing slot on Saturday night.
It was beginning to look like the end, and some questioned why Wein had booked the Ellington band at all, but Ellington saw the potential for juicing up his career, and he did something he’d never done before: he held a band meeting to inspire his men. A pep talk, as it were. Like any bandleader, Ellington knew he had to keep it fresh—for the band as well as the audience—and he put in some new twists for that show, while keeping it recognizable. He’d been doing that over the years leading up to the Newport show, and he did it again for that night, but it wasn’t working. And I quote with no attribution:
"Ellington had put together a piece called The Newport Festival Suite. It went over well enough with the audience, but as it came to a close, people began heading for the parking lot. Ellington called for one of his old stand-bys, Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue. People stopped, listened, and hurried back to their seats. Then tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves began to play.
Wein recalled, “People sat in reserved seats normally, and then they sat and watched the concert, and once in a while they’d stand up and cheer and give a standing ovation. But a woman started to dance when Ellington had Paul Gonsalves playing his tenor solo. And Duke saw this woman dance, everybody crowded around to see the dancing of this woman… She was quite attractive, it really took hold and Ellington saw this thing happening, and he just kept Paul Gonsalves playing."
Yeah, a foxy blonde in a tight red dress stood up near the stage and started dancing, and everyone saw her. Ellington had been experimenting with new arrangements and he’d been segueing from Diminuendo to Crescendo in Blue, using tenor sax player Paul Gonsalves’ sax solo to transition from one song to the next. Yeah, he’d been experimenting with that transition, sometimes letting him play one chorus, occasionally for two, and he liked using just his piano with drums and bass, keeping it simple so the band could slide into the next song smoothly. Yeah, he liked the new transition, and Gonsalves was a master player whose solo could take the crowd with him.
After Diminuendo, Ellington, as usual, turned the song over to the quartet of bass, drums, Gonsalves on tenor sax and himself on piano. I don’t think he ever called it a quartet as Benny Goodman was doing, but the transition worked and sometimes he played with it.
I’ve seen conflicting stories of whether Ellington told Gonsalves to play as long as he liked before the show, or if he only indicated the change to him onstage while he was playing. I like the onstage, last-second-story with Duke seeing the woman in the red dress and the audience reaction to her dancing, but either way, neither Duke nor anyone onstage, nor anyone in the audience, had any idea of what was about to happen. Personally, I don’t see how even Paul Gonsalves knew what was coming, but once he stood up to play, the Duke had—one way or t’other—given him the nod to keep playing, and he kept nodding and Gonsalves kept playing and the cheers from the crowd kept growing.
It started when he finished his usual chorus, and he watched the Duke because sometimes he got another, and that night he did, so no one in the band or in the house thought too much about those first two solos other than that they were played by a master of the tenor sax, and then it got interesting. At Ellington’s signal, Paul Gonsalves launched into a third and then a fourth chorus, all different, and by now the band knew something was going on. This was the Duke’s band and he wrote the charts and you played the charts. There wasn’t any improvising in a Duke Ellington band- you played the charts and if he gave you a nod to do another solo, you took it and then sat down and you hoped you made it count because the Duke was always listening with that critical ear of his that was never wrong.
So now the band was sitting up and watching those third and fourth solos and, along with the Duke, listening with that ear they all had, that inner ear that knew notes from noise, that knew music from muzak. They were all paying attention and they all sat up and watched and listened as Gonsalves played another chorus, and then another and another, and the Duke kept nodding, and Gonsalves kept playing. and by this time, he had also taken one lady in a red dress with him. The crowd saw her dancing and high-steppin’ and so they started returning to their seats and cheering, along with the band, and then some of them started dancing.
The crowd didn’t know what was going on, but they dug it when it looked to them like the band didn’t know what was going on, either, as the guys in the band were calling out encouragements like, “Come on, Paul! Dig in! Dig in!” and “Get it, man get it!” And so the crowd was now wholly into it! The Duke was watching and listening, throwing in piano chords for punctuation but staying out of the way, and I’m guessing here that he had a smile on his beautiful puss because Gonsalves got the message and kept on playing, taking chorus after chorus until by the ninth or tenth chorus the house was rocking as the band kept calling out to him and the people out there were stomping and cheering and my God! People were dancing in the aisles at the Newport Jazz Festival! Festival!
Producer George Wein, afraid of a riot, was pacing in the wings, trying to signal something to the Duke, but the Duke wouldn’t have it. He had a madman blowing sax solos on the stage, his band was re-vitalized, and a normally reserved, well-behaved group of adults were now out of their minds, cheering, dancing, toe-tapping and clapping, living in the same groove in a moment that no one had expected… and that man kept blowing on his saxophone for twenty-seven choruses! Twenty-seven choruses? Twenty–seven choruses! And not one of them was a repetition of what came before! Twenty-seven choruses! All of them different and all right and tight! It was insane!
Insane for all the right reasons, sure, but reason demands that it had to end, it all had to come back down to earth, and after traveling where no one had gone before, Paul Gonslaves came back down to earth when Ellington signaled “enough,” and he sat back down. And then stood back up as the audience cheered and Duke Ellington took over with the full band as they came back for “Crescendo in Blue.”
Yow! Wow! The audience had gone crazy in the best way possible, but…
So, uhh… whattya got next, Duke? Well, “Crescendo in Blue,” ended with a stirring trumpet solo, but the crowd was not to be appeased with some high C’s. I mean, what are ya gonna play after that, Duke? Well, that was an extraordinary moment, and it didn’t exactly go downhill after that, but:
After that performance, pandemonium took over. Duke calmed the crowd by announcing, "If you've heard of the saxophone, then you've heard of Johnny Hodges…" Duke's star alto saxophonist then played two of his most famous numbers… Still the crowd refused to disperse so Duke called for Ray Nance to sing "Tulip or Turnip." The festival's organizers tried to cut off the show at this point but once again were met with angry refusals to end the evening.
Duke told the announcer that he would end the show and wanted to thank the audience but instead announced he had a "very heavy request for Sam Woodyard in 'Skin Deep'", a number written by former Ellington drummer Louis Bellson. This drum solo feature was the final number featured, followed by a farewell from Duke over “Mood Indigo". In his farewell, he thanked the crowd for the "wonderful way in which you've inspired us this evening."
Then, after those four encores, the crowd had calmed down and George Wein was no longer worried about a riot. Duke Ellington closed out the show with his traditional, "You are very beautiful, very sweet and we do love you madly," and with that, the band got up amid the roar and left the stage.
George Wein later remembered, “Every time I saw Duke after that, he would be talking about the introduction of Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, and he would say, ‘I was born at Newport in 1956.’”
The repercussions from that show helped to revive Duke Ellington’s career. Duke made the cover of Time magazine and the album of this show sold better than any other Ellington album. His next compositions were considered to be among his best, and his fame and respect grew until his death in 1974. Three recordings of the show were released, one of them with additional input from the band recorded in a studio the next day, and another version was cobbled together from pieces of tapes. Some would complain about the purity of the recording, but the final version was painstakingly assembled and is agreed to be the honest one. In that last version you can hear every note played by Paul Gonsalves, and of course there were not—could not have been—any tampering with what was done by one man and a saxophone. No, whatever you might have heard about that night or about those recordings, that performance stands alone, indisputable and an exquisite example of what is possible, right there on the stage in Newport, Rhode Island, United States of America, one summer night in 1956.
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.