dukeI need to thank Fred for jogging my memory a few days ago. He completed his alphabet assignment in a timely fashion, a great list based on the letter N.

You can see his list here; pay particular attention to the entry about “Newport Jazz,” and the Duke Ellington show at the Newport festival in 1956. Fred emphasizes the performance of “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue,” two old Ellington pieces that were connected by an instrumental break performed by tenor sax player Paul Gonsalves.

I have read about this performance before; I knew that it was a turning point for Ellington and his band, which was increasingly viewed as a relic when compared with emerging forms like cool jazz on the West Coast and hard bop in the east. But I had never listened to the recordings of the show, and I wanted to hear “Diminuendo” and “Crescendo” in particular.

A quick visit to iTunes got me the music, and that’s all I’ve been listening to for the last two days. The “Diminuendo” and “Crescendo” piece is about 14 minutes long, and the break — just Gonsalves, Ellington plinking color chords and the band’s drummer — takes up about half the track. It’s an amazing solo, but not in the way that John Coltrane would stretch musical limits in the decade to come; it’s done within the confines of Ellington’s swing — and it swings so hard that it brought a timid audience out of its seats.

The Wikipedia entry describes the pandemonium at the show. It also says it was the performance — and Gonsalves’ solo was the very moment — that the Ellington band resurrected its career. I love finding instances of the power of music and its ability to energize an audience; that was the thing that kept me going back to Grateful Dead and Phish shows over the years. But although the setting and the style are very different, this piece is a perfect example of how that works. When you listen to the track, you’ll hear members of Ellington’s band urging Gonsalves on; you’ll also hear the audience become more and more raucous as the solo continues.

I bought the whole album from iTunes for $16, and I think it’s worth it. But at least do this — for a buck you can download the track at Amazon. It represents a turning point the career of one of the more important American musicans ever, and it’s a kick in the ass like you we may not ever hear again.

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