Duke Ellington - piano, composer; Johnny Hodges - alto saxophone; Harold Ashby - tenor saxophone, clarinet; Russell Procope - clarinet; Paul Gonsalves - tenor saxophone; Harry Carney - baritone saxophone; Cootie Williams - trumpet; Cat Anderson - trumpet; Mercer Ellington - trumpet; Herbie Jones - trumpet; Laurence Brown - trombone; George "Buster" Cooper - trombone; Chuck Connors - trombone; Jimmy Cleveland - trombone; Money Johnson - trombone; Jeff Castleman - bass; Dick Wilson - drums; Rufus Jones - drums
One of the most famous names in jazz history, second only to Louis Armstrong, Edward Kennedy Ellington (aka Duke) was the most prolific composer and important bandleader for a span of over 50 years. By the time Ellington appeared at the 1968 Newport Jazz Festival, he was approaching 70 and had just lost his close friend and colleague, composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn, who died of lung cancer the previous year (Duke would pay tribute to his valued right-hand man on 1968's And His Mother Called Him Bill). Perhaps sensing his own mortality in his later years, Ellington turned to composing sacred works in 1965 and 1966 (he won a Grammy in 1966 for best original jazz composition for "In the Beginning, God") and in 1967 he incorporated world music influences on his ambitious Far East Suite. But for his performance at the 1968 Newport Jazz Festival, Duke relied on some of his proven favorites to win over the Friday evening crowd at Freebody Park.
Duke strode onto the stage to the strains of Strayhorn's "Take the A Train," which had become Ellington's theme song, and addressed the audience in typically slick fashion: "You're very beautiful, very sweet, very gracious, very generous, and all the kids in the band want you to know that we do love you madly." And with that, the orchestra launches into a full-blown version of "Take the A Train," a feature for trumpet star Cootie Williams. This well-known piece opens with a rare waltz-time piano trio rendition with Duke accompanied by drummer Dick Wilson and bassist Jeff Castleman. Coming out of that surprising arrangement, they segue neatly to the more familiar 4/4 time and swing through a few more choruses before the full big band finally enters with the familiar, swaggering theme.
Duke's longtime baritone sax ace Harry Carney is next featured on a lovely rendition of "Sophisticated Lady." In his erudite intro to "The Biggest and Busiest Intersection," a piece from his Second Sacred Concert released earlier that year, Ellington explains that the title is a metaphor for the entrance to heaven… or hell. This up-tempo swinger is paced by Rufus Jones' insistent hi-hat work and imbued with some of the busiest, most energetic playing by the Ellington aggregation since his fabled 'jungle band' days from the mid-1920s. The writing on this tumultuous romp through the gates of Eden (or Hades) is full of dissonant harmonies in the horn section and culminates in a whirlwind drum solo by Jones and some screeching high-note trumpet blasts from Cat Anderson.
Ellington's solo piano intro to "Swamp Goo" triggers a mournful early New Orleans styled number that serves as a showcase for Russell Procope's potent, blues-soaked clarinet work (dig his soulful unaccompanied coda at the tag).
Tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves is next featured on the frantic up-tempo workout "Up Jump." As Ellington tells the crowd in typically sly fashion, "Paul Gonzalves, you'll remember, was arrested in 1956 at the Newport Jazz Festival and indicted for arson," a reference to his amazing 27 solo choruses on "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" at Ellington's historic appearance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. And while this solo may not reach those lofty heights, it is a prime showcase for Gonsalves, who wails with raucous abandon over the top of this kinetic romp.
Cat Anderson's stratospheric trumpet blowing is featured on Raymond Fol's exotic "Salome," then alto sax great Johnny Hodges is showcased on a heartfelt rendering of Billy Strayhorn's tender and melancholy "Passion Flower." Following a beautiful solo piano intro by the Duke, Hodges enters with his trademark pungent tone on this moving ballad. As the piece develops, Hodges testifies on his horn with keening, bent-note declarations before building to a dramatic crescendo. The hugely influential altoist then remains front and center for a featured spot on the rousing blues, "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," an anthemic number penned by Ellington's son Mercer, who was playing in the trumpet section on this day at Newport.
Duke would leave the stage to strains of "Satin Doll," a popular Ellington number which he co-composed with Strayhorn in 1953, but return to engage the Newport faithful in a finger-snapping audience participation bit. And as he wisely advises the crowd in typical hepster fashion: "One never snaps one's fingers on the beat. It's considered aggressive. Don't push it, just let it fall. And if you'd like to be conservatively hip, at the same time, tilt the left earlobe. Establish a state of nonchalance. And if you would like to be respectably cool, then tilt the left earlobe on the beat and snap the finger on the afterbeat. Then you really don't care. And so by routine-ing one's finger-snapping and choreographing one's finger snapping, one discovers that one can become as cool as one wishes to be." He then bids them adieu with, "Here's four kisses, ladies and gentlemen… one for each cheek." And George Wein adds, "Will wonders never cease? What can I tellya."
The son of a White House butler, Edward Kennedy Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 and grew up in comfortable surroundings. Beginning piano lessons at age seven, he was writing music by his teens, later dropping out of high school in 1917 to pursue a career in music. He was a member of a five-piece group called the Washingtonians, which relocated to New York in 1923 and took up residency in a Times Square venue called the Kentucky Club. The group made its first recordings in November 1924 and later came under Ellington's leadership, playing a raucous brand of jazz that was dubbed "jungle" style" and featured the growling trumpet work of James "Bubber" Miley (perhaps best exemplified on their 1927 recording, "East St. Louis Toodle-oo"). In the wake of the success of that single, the Ellington band took a job uptown at the Cotton Club in Harlem on December 4, 1927. Their residency at the famed club lasted more than three years and live radio broadcasts made Ellington a nationally known musician. In 1930, Ellington took his band to California to appear in the film Check and Double Check. During his absence, his spot at the Cotton Club was filled by Cab Calloway's big band.
By 1931, Ellington scored a Top Five hit with an instrumental version of one of his standards, "Mood Indigo" and the following year scored a Top Ten hit with "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," featuring the vocals of Ivie Anderson. He followed with a succession of hits in "Sophisticated Lady," "Solitude" and "Reminiscing in Tempo."
In early 1939, a young composer-arranger-pianist from Pittsburgh named Billy Strayhorn joined the organization and became Ellington's composing partner and right-hand man. The subsequent addition of bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster fortified the ensemble. Their impact on Ellington's sound was so significant that this aggregation has been dubbed "the Blanton-Webster Band" by jazz historians. In the summer of 1941, this unit recorded Strayhorn's "Take the A Train," which became the band's theme song and was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
The Ellington band remained a powerhouse through the '40s, churning out such hits as "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me" and "I'm Beginning to See the Light." After experiencing something of a decline in the early '50s, the Ellington band made a major comeback at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival on the strength of a dazzling performance on July 7 that featured a long, show-stopping solo by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalvez on "Dimuendo and Crescendo in Blue." That historic performance, which essentially revived Ellington's career, led to him being featured on the cover of Time magazine on August 20 of that year and also resulted in him being signed to a new contract with Columbia Records, which released Ellington at Newport, the best-selling album of his career.
In 1959, Ellington scored the film Anatomy of a Murder and two years later was nominated for an Academy Award for his next score, Paris Blues. He released the first of his scared concerts in 1965 (performed at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on September 16), winning a 1966 Grammy for best original jazz composition for "In the Beginning, God." His 1967 album Far East Suite, inspired by a tour of the Middle and Far East, won the best instrumental jazz performance Grammy that year, and he took home his sixth Grammy in the same category in 1969 for And His Mother Called Him Bill, a tribute to Strayhorn, who had died in 1967. Ellington followed with such ambitious works as 1971's New Orleans Suite, 1972's Togo Brava Suite, and the posthumously-released The Ellington Suites.
Ellington continued to perform regularly with his orchestra up until he was overcome by illness in the spring of 1974. He died on May 24, 1974 at age 75. His son Mercer subsequently led the Ellington Orchestra until his own death in 1996.
In 1999, during celebrations of the Ellington centenary, he was hailed as one of the most important composers of the 20th century by scores of critics and historians. Today, the Duke Ellington Orchestra still tours, under the direction of Duke's grandson Paul Ellington. (Milkowski)