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This Song Re-Charged Duke Ellington's Career

The cover of Duke Ellington's 1956 album, recorded live at the Newport Jazz Festival

In 1956, a groundbreaking performance at the Newport Jazz Festival changed the course of Duke Ellington's path in jazz. WRTI’s Susan Lewis has more. 

Radio script:

MUSIC: "Sophisticated Lady," Duke Ellington 

By the mid 1950s, Duke Ellington’s band was surviving—but not thriving. He’d been a force since 1923, but the swing era had given way to bebop, cool jazz, and rock and roll. Capitol Records had recently dropped him.  The year 1956 was the third year of the Newport Jazz Festival; he was scheduled for a short set at the start, and one at the end.

It was close to midnight on July 7th when, after playing some old hits and a new suite, Ellington decided to kick back.

Time Magazine put Ellington on the cover in August, and called his band "once again, the most exciting thing in the business."

MUSIC: "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," Duke Ellington at Newport, with tenor sax solo by Paul Gonsalves

"Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" were two blues sections separated by an interval featuring tenor sax  Paul Gonsalves.    

Coming in after a piano break by Ellington, the sax solo wailed on and on... for 27 choruses. The audience was on its feet; there was dancing in the aisles, and the crowd became, in the words of record producer George Avakian, “an enormous single, living organism, reacting in waves like huge ripples to the music."

Paul Gonsalves with Duke Ellington

Time Magazine put Ellington on the cover in August, and called his band “once again. the most exciting thing in the business.” In October, Columbia released Ellington at Newport, which was to be his best-selling album ever.

Ellington himself would later proclaim, “I was born at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956.”

The Newport Jazz Festival opened the summer of 1954, funded by society couple Elaine and Louis Lorillard, and organized by producer George Wein with Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday Dizzy Gillespie, and others.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.