The chill of a moonless July midnight was in the air, and some of the 11,000 jazz buffs in Newport, R.I.'s Freebody Park drifted towards the gate. In the tented area behind the bandstand, musicians who had finished playing for the final night of Newport's third jazz festival were packing their instruments and saying goodbye. The festival was just about over. But onstage famed Bandleader Duke Ellington, a trace of coldness rimming his urbanity, refused to recognize the fact. He announced one of his 1938 compositions, Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue. A strange, spasmodic air, that carried memories of wilderness and city, rose through the salt-scented night air like a fire on a beach. Minutes passed. People turned back from the exits; snoozers woke up. All at once the promise of new excitement revived the dying evening.
At that magic moment Ellington's Paul Gonsalves was ripping off a fast but insinuating solo on his tenor saxophone, his fancies dandled by a bounding beat on bass and drums (Jimmy Woode and Sam Woodyard). The Duke himself tweaked an occasional fragment on the high piano. Gradually, the beat began to ricochet from the audience as more and more fans began to clap hands on the offbeats until the crowd was one vast, rhythmic chorus, yelling its approval. There were howls of "More! More!" and there was dancing in the aisles. One young woman broke loose from her escort and rioted solo around the field, while a young man encouraged her by shouting, "Go, go, go!" Festival officials began to fear that something like a rock 'n' roll riot was taking place. One of them was pleading with beaming Bandleader Ellington to stop. When the fellow's entreaties got too emphatic, Duke wagged a soothing finger at him and said mildly, "Don't be rude to the artists."
The event last month marked not only the turning point in one concert; it confirmed a turning point in a career. The big news was something that the whole jazz world had long hoped to hear: the Ellington band was once again the most exciting thing in the business, Ellington himself had emerged from a long period of quiescence and was once again bursting with ideas and inspiration.
At 57, Edward Kennedy Ellington, jazzman, composer, and beyond question one of America's topflight musicians, is a magic name to two generations of Americans. His Mood Indigo, Sophisticated Lady, Solitude, and countless other dreamy tunes have become as familiar as any other songs since Stephen Foster. As jazz composer he is beyond categorizingthere is hardly a musician in the field who has not been influenced by the Ellington style. His style contains the succinctness of concert music and the excitement of jazz. His revival comes at a time when most bandleaders who thrived in the golden '30s are partly or completely out of business,* and few have risen to replace them.