Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue

Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue

Dr. Mitch Myers
copyright © 2000 Mitch Myers

I tried calling my good pal Harlan on the phone the other day. I needed some technical help with my computer and if anyone knows about computers, it's Harlan. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately now that I've had sometime to think about it, my friend was nowhere to be found.

Instead, I was confronted by Harlan's latest voicemail greeting. "Hi, I'm not home right now." his voice patiently explained. "This is Paul Gonsalves saxophone solo from 'Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue'. If you have heard this before, you may press pound now and leave me a message." I chuckled to myself as Paul Gonsalves' tenor sax began to blow through the wire and into my ear. That wily bastard had certainly come up with some crazy greetings in the past, but this one was really too much. Now, you're probably asking yourself what makes this bit of music notable in the first place and I must say, I'm glad you asked.

Paul Gonsalves played this saxophone solo with Duke Ellington's orchestra at the American Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island back on July 7, 1956. Certainly that in itself is an interesting tidbit, but its only half of the story here. Ellington, of course, is an undisputed giant in jazz history who had become enormously popular since performing at Harlem's Cotton Club during the Roaring '20s . While immortal compositions like "Mood Indigo", "Sophisticated Lady" and "Take The A Train" sustained Ellington throughout the '30s and '40s , things had tapered off for the band and their performance at Newport was intended to be a comeback of sorts. Ellington had even written a new composition, the "Newport Jazz Festival Suite", expressly for the occasion.

Paul Gonsalves on the other hand, was a mere journeyman who had played with Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie before joining up with Ellington and his caravan. His extroverted saxophone style was solid but unremarkable, coming out of the Coleman Hawkins school of tenor players. While not nearly as famous as other tenor stars who had worked with Ellington (like the great Ben Webster), Gonsalves was a seasoned musician who could always be counted on for a respectable performance. That night, Ellington's introduction of "Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue" was respectfully received by the Newport crowd but not identified as anything particularly noteworthy. Indeed, the song had been written 19 years earlier and there was no indication that this performance would be anything out of the ordinary.

The piece starts with a several minutes of standard-issue Ellingtonia, that is, Duke setting the stage with four jumping choruses on piano before the ensemble rolls in to fortify the main theme. After two more choruses by the Duke and with a rollicking beat being laid down by bassist Jimmy Woode and drummer Sam Woodyard, Paul Gonsalves finally steps forward to perform his most memorable solo. Gonsalves' segment begins conventionally enough and his first few choruses could have been played by any number of tenor players from this era. Traditionally, three or four choruses by even the most notable soloist would be plenty for an Ellington composition, but this would not be the case at Newport. It was somewhere around Gonsalves' sixth steaming chorus that the crowd began to sense something special was occurring and it was during his seventh go-round that a sophisticated lady (a platinum blonde in a black evening dress, as the legend goes) jumped up from her box seat and began dancing wildly to the rocking rhythm. Bear in mind that the festival was a somewhat elegant event and the commotion caused by Gonsalves' tour de force had the Newport police security more than just a little concerned.

By this time, most the crowd (7000 strong) were on their feet and cheering. Eight, 12, 15 muscular choruses and Gonsalves still showed no signs of slowing down. At the very foot of the stage, Jo Jones (former Basie drummer who was appearing at Newport with Teddy Wilson) was pounding out his unbridled enthusiasm with a rolled up copy of the Christian Science Monitor. Still being backed by just bass, drums and an occasional piano fill by the Duke, Gonsalves reared back even harder and played on. Veteran Ellington bandmates like Johnny Hodges, Cat Anderson and Harry Carney were shouting their own, special encouragement as Paul Gonsalves soldiered through a grand total of 27 straight, groovin' choruses.

Needless to say, after almost seven minutes worth of a saxophone solo that shook the world (would you believe Rhode Island?), the beep indicating it was time to leave Harlan a message brought me back from a most nostalgic reverie. I had completely forgotten what I was calling about and although I tried valiantly to think of something clever to say, I was stumped. Instead, I sat right down and wrote myself this letter. Yep, my computer may be on the fritz, but jazz lives on forever.

Mitch Myers


C o m m e n t s

Paul Gonsalves at Newport 1 of 3
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July 22, 02

Gonsalves performance is one amongst the best I know (with Wardell Gray's "Blue Lou" backed by Eroll Garner at Civic Auditorium of Pasadena, and Illinois Jacquet "One o'clock jump" backed by Basie orchestra at Newport 1957). Bur I am not sure that Gonsalves performance is really a spontaneous one. I've got an old vinyl disc "Duke Ellington : Rare broadcasting recordings : 1951" including a 11 ' 41 "" Diminuendo and Crescendo, performed by Paul Gonsalves. And his solo are rather the same, 5 years before.. What do you think about it ? The orchestra was : Harold Baker, Cat Anderson, Nelson Williams, Ray Nance (tp), Quentin Jackson, Juan Tizol, Britt Woodman (tb),Jimmy Hamilton (cl), Russel Procope, Willie Smith (as), Paul Gonsalves (ts), Harry Carney (bs), Duke (pn), Wendell Marshall (b)and Louie Bellson (dms). I should be happy to get your mind about this.

J.P. Badellon (France)

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