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Vol. LXIII, No. 18
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
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Book Review

A Band Reborn — Diminuendo and Crescendo in Ellington

Stuart Mitchner

“I was born at Newport.”

Duke Ellington, quoted in Backstory in Blue

“She was a very photogenic girl. She was an integral part of the moment, and that is why she went on the album.”

Ellington at Newport producer George Avakian

“The gal who launched 7,000 cheers” (as the caption under her photo on the album read) was actually a 33-year-old woman with a husband and three kids. Elaine Anderson did more than set the crowd on fire when Ellington’s music took hold of her and sent her dancing down the aisle that night; she became the frenzied embodiment of a communal ecstasy.

A week ago, April 29, was Duke Ellington’s 110th birthday. If you read what happened at the Newport Jazz Festival in Backstory in Blue: Ellington at Newport ’56 (Rutgers $34.95) by John Fass Morton, you’ll understand why Ellington said his other birthday was July 7, 1956.

How Did It Happen?

The night did not begin promisingly. When Ellington was introduced, the sophisticated, well-behaved audience offered little more than polite applause. In the context of a culture where rock and roll had become a force to be reckoned with and Elvis Presley was ascending to the throne, Ellington at Newport was a glorified garden party where the night’s entertainment was being provided by a band that had more to do with Then than Now. So, how was it possible that a group of musicians, their glory years presumably long gone, could manage to rouse the same crowd to such a pitch of excitement that a security guard decided that a riot was imminent and tried to make Ellington stop the music?

The title of the number being played — ”Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” — hardly sounded incendiary. Neither did the “Interlude” scheduled between those two movements. Only if you’d already seen the band perform the number could you conceive of the fireworks contained within that formal, unassuming little word, a mere rest-stop before the promised “Crescendo.” The fireworks were set off by a Cape Verdean tenor man named Paul Gonsalves. After the 27 choruses of jazz history Gonsalves made that night, the “interlude” was redefined by Ellington as “The Wailing Interval.” Not that Gonsalves was new to long solos. He’d played 36 choruses at an African American dance hall in Durham, North Carolina that spring. But Newport was a big stage, the press was in attendance, and a month later Duke was on the cover of Time.

And then of course there was the phenomenon of Elaine Anderson. While it’s true that she was no stranger to dancing, having grown up idolizing Isadora Duncan, this life-force in a cocktail dress was not some stoned jazz groupie. Duke’s account of her in his book Music Is My Mistress as “a lovely society matron” who “broke through her veneer of discretion and jumped her thing” was not far off the mark. “The more I danced,” the dancer recalled, “the more Paul Gonsalves got going, and the more Paul went, the more I went until it got to a fury you couldn’t believe. I wasn’t doing this to get attention. I was just carried away.”

If the picture of tenor man Sonny Rollins woodshedding on Williamsburg Bridge qualifies as quintessential jazz imagery, so should the spectacle of Gonsalves bending over his horn focused on nothing but the homestretch of his solo while the waves of crowd rapture kept building as the classy platinum blonde danced down the aisle, gyrating, swaying, kicking up her heels, high-stepping it, her “ruffled petticoat and skirt of her dress,” in Morton’s words, “fanning from her hips every time she twirled.”

Another key player, another espontáneo leaping into the Newport bull ring, was Count Basie’s ex-drummer Jo Jones, who was standing by the stage pounding out the beat with a rolled-up newspaper (the Christian Science Monitor yet) and cheering the band on. Elaine noticed him doing it before Gonsalves took his solo. That, she says, was what started her dancing. She imagined him saying, “Come on, Elaine. Let’s get this thing off the ground. We’re dying here.”

Ellington later gave this onetime bulwark of his royal rival’s rhythm section special mention: “Jo Jones was the driving force behind our big success at Newport in 1956 … slapping a back beat with a newspaper, talking to us, he prodded us into a ‘Go, baby!’ drive that developed into the rhythmic groove of the century.”

Jones expressed his enthusiasm for Ellington’s sound in a Down Beat magazine Blindfold Test. Listening to an unidentified band playing an apparently little known version of the Basie theme song, “One O’clock Jump,” he laughed out loud, named the band (“That’s got to be Duke!”), and praised the performance for capturing “the picture of what that little tune is supposed to typify. It typifies a little word called LIFE. Spell that in capital letters please ….This is a little before Kinsey; and Kinsey would do well to take this record and dissect it, and he can write him another book.”

Interlude: Early Duke

The surprise frenzy of Newport 1956 seems a long way from the suave, seductive young bandleader gazing out at you from the cover of Episode Three of Ken Burns’s Jazz. It’s a haunting image — the spellbinder in formal attire, his top hat slanted at a rakish angle — but then haunting is one of the things jazz does best. It’s in the sound of Miles Davis’s muted trumpet, Billie Holiday singing “My Old Flame,” and the ghostly saxophone lament from 1926 that begins Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” and haunts William Burrough’s Naked Lunch where the “opening bars” can be heard “at times loud and clear then faint and intermittent like music down a windy street.” After Bubber Miley’s growling trumpet takes the zombie fantasia to another level, the mood lifts a bit, giving way to a jaunty, catchy, all’s-right-with-the-world joyride that allows the dancers (the “todolo” being a ragtime dance step) a chance to shake things up before the lament returns.

22 Years Before Newport

Now dial back the clock to 1934 and the “Ebony Rhapsody” sequence from a Paramount film called Murder at the Vanities, where an orchestra of court dandies in period garb is playing Franz Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody when they’re invaded by a subterranean orchestra. Like some apparition from the underworld, up pops the Ellington reed section wailing in and out of sight, same with the brass, routing the dandies while their sophisticated ladies in frilly gowns hang around, fascinated by this strange congregation, the exotic music they’re playing, and the accompanying entourage of black and tan dancing girls in see-through costumes. Meanwhile the Duke takes over the piano, waves away the disgruntled conductor, and settles into his element. Grinning and swaying, he doesn’t play the piano, he clouts it and cuffs it and flails over it, driving the scene into total frenzy, the fancy ladies getting into the act, kicking up their heels no less wildly than the society matron at Newport while a chorus line diva sings about “classical voodoo” and “dirty hosannas.” It all ends when the leader of the routed orchestra appears with a machine gun and mows everybody down like a personification of the censors who would have shot down the scene a year later when the Production Code went into effect.

As always, dancing is the force that “gets the thing off the ground” and creates “the rhythmic groove,” as would happen again at Newport when Elaine Anderson tripped the light fantastic and a band was reborn.

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