Duke Ellington - Ellington at Newport (1956)
Whenever I listen to Duke Ellington's music, two stories immediately come to mind. First, there's the one about how he and his band used to avoid hassles while performing throughout the segregated South by traveling in Duke's lavishly appointed private railway car. That's absolute class in a frosted champagne glass. The second is from Frank Zappa's The Real Frank Zappa Book, and, unfortunately, it isn't anywhere near as grand. Zappa tells about being backstage at some hastily thrown-together festival in Miami, '69, where he witnessed Duke pleading with one of the promoter's flunkies for a ten dollar advance - a pitiful sight that prompted Zappa to disband The Mothers right then and there. "If Duke Ellington had to beg some George Wein assistant backstage for ten bucks, what the fuck was I doing with a ten-piece band, trying to play rock and roll?" Thankfully, Ellington at Newport chronicles a happier, more prosperous point in his multifarious narrative. Here is an album that showcases the man and his band at their magnificent best, testament to the natural aristocracy that transformed this musical Midas from "Edward" to "Duke" at the tender age of seven. From the very first days of the Harlem Renaissance at the fabled Cotton Club, through the birth of radio orchestras and soundtracks for Hollywood Golden Age films, through world-conquering tours with an ever-growing band that showcased some of the brightest lights in American music - a roster of Greats with a capital G - Duke's story simply cannot be summed up in a space like this. Suffice it to say that Ellington at Newport captures one of the finest incarnations of Duke's revolving band, and the decision to keep all the between-song chatter makes you feel like you're sitting there in the rain with an audience so appreciative, they occasionally come close to rioting. No wonder this was Duke's best-selling LP. A masterpiece from an artist who lived his life as an ongoing masterpiece, it is more than a mere pleasure to hear this music today... it is a privilege that should not be taken lightly.
Had I heard it before? I'm ashamed to say that this is the first time I've listened to this recording straight through.