Duke Ellington - At Newport [CL 934] - Review
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critics' view

A musical genius whose career was a metaphor for how far his art could go beyond its humble and limited origins was in popular decline when contracted to play a newly established jazz festival at Newport, Rhode Island, where high-society types had recently brought together enough of the forces needed to hold the blues of bigotry and social prejudice at bay. Columbia Records, having won the competition against RCA to first produce a long-playing record, or album, managed to get a crew there to document the performance. The new technology would allow Ellington to think in terms of much more time than was allowed in the three-minute records that had built the great mass of his reputation over the past thirty years. The most formidable composer of his idiom, the bandleader had written a three-part suite to celebrate the occasion and to uplift the audience. It was a plateau in a career that had begun to buck racial and aesthetic limitations with the support of the bandleader’s Jewish manager, Irving Mills, who had fought all of Ellington’s battles with him from the late Twenties to the late Thirties. When the band went on at Newport, for all that it had been and had meant to American music for so long, the initial response of the audience was indifferent if not bored.

Then, as in a film, after failing to thrill the audience with piece after piece, the bandleader decides not to go down without a hard swinging fight and calls an extended blues work that he wrote nineteen years before, one that nearly created a riot in 1938 when performed at the very first jazz festival on Randall’s Island in New York. This time, however, a featured solo was the ace in the hole. It was presented by Paul Gonsalves, the tenor saxophonist who was from Rhode Island’s Cape Verdean community but had been with Ellington for six years and had, just a few years earlier, very nearly ignited a Birdland audience to chaotic behavior with his red-hot playing of the same piece. That night in Newport, not very far from his home, Gonsalves again did his duty, lighting the smoking lamp with the golden brass blow torch of his saxophone. The music, the audience, and the night synthesized into a miracle of expression, acceptance, and transcendence. The players owned the evening.

John Fass Morton
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