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Backstory in Blue: Ellington at Newport '56.

Backstory in Blue: Ellington at Newport '56, John Fass Morton. Rutgers, 2008. 304 pp. ISBN-978-0-8135-4282-9. Hardcover.

Readers who are not steeped in jazz lore may not get this book's rather esoteric title. Its central concern is the performance of the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival (NJF) on the evening and early morning of July 7-8, 1956. More precisely, it focuses upon the band's rendition of the up-tempo "Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue" and the crowd's response to the groove laid down by bassist Jimmy Woode and drummer Sam Woodyard, to Paul Gonsalves's long, hot, tenor sax solo, and to Newport socialite Elaine Anderson's spontaneous solo dancing. The importance these events played in reviving Ellington's career has been noted by critics and historians as well as by the Duke himself who, when asked his age during the 1960s, would reply, "That's a dangerous question. I was born in 1956 at the Newport Festival." (1) If Morton had merely described this collective performance, his book would be shorter but much less interesting. Instead he has provided a "backstory" that supplements, and occasionally corrects, previous accounts and embeds them in a rich historical and cultural context. Relying heavily upon interviews with those who played crucial roles both onstage and off, as well as secondary sources, Morton offers fascinating profiles and narratives as well as keen appraisals of contemporary events and trends.

The twenty chapters of Backstory in Blue are grouped into three parts. In Part One, entitled "How We Got There," Morton recounts the key people, places, and events that led to NJF '56. He also chronicles the development of the jazz record industry and provides an extensive profile of George Avakian, from his high school years as an avid jazz discophile, to his time at Yale where he joined the United Hot Clubs of America and got to know Marshall Stearns (who in 1956 authored The Story of Jazz), to his advocacy of reissuing classic jazz records, and finally to his role as a jazz producer at Columbia, and later other labels.

Morton's account of the founding of the NJF, as well as its first two (1954 and 1955) editions, agrees substantially with that provided by Bert Goldblatt in his 1977 study Newport Jazz Festival: The Illustrated History. Both writers agree that once the idea took root, Elaine and Louis Lorillard provided start-up money, recruited the advisory board, persuaded George Wein to sign on as producer, and promoted the festival among their friends and neighbors. Morton goes on to add a deeper discussion of how Elaine Guthrie Lorillard, after years of classical piano lessons, became a passionate advocate for jazz.

The location, events, and principal actors of "Newport '56" are recounted in a series of six chapters under that heading. Beginning days before the festival, Morton relates decisions and actions that preceded the final Saturday night program, he then continues with a compelling account of the events just before Ellington's last set. Here, on the verge of describing the epic performance, Morton diverts focus from affluent Newport to the more modest, but musically rich, Cape Verdean community in and around New Bedford, MA, the culture that produced Paul Gonsalves. In addition to describing that milieu, the author relates important events in Gonsalves's pre-Ellington life: his musical awakening upon hearing the Jimmie Lunceford band at the RKO Theater in Providence, RI, his subsequent ascent through the ranks of local and territory bands, and eventually his ascent to membership in the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras. The chapter ends with a brief account of the genesis and pre-NJF '56 history of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" and of Gonsalves's lengthy solos during its "interval."

The main narrative resumes in Chapter 12, which is immodestly titled "The Rhythmic Groove of the Century: The Gonsalves Solo." After setting the scene by locating various VIPs and contingents in the audience, Morton narrates the unfolding of the "Diminuendo" performance from Ellington's announcement and four-chorus piano introduction, to the entrance of the bass and drums, and then that of the saxes and brass. Once the band had finished the "Diminuendo" section, which Ellington concluded with a two-chorus interlude, Gonsalves stepped forward to begin his "interval" solo. As he began to blow, he closed his eyes and failed to notice George Avakian frantically pointing to the Columbia microphone that was on a separate stand from those for the festival PA and the Voice of America (VOA) recording contingent. Avakian ran backstage and told the Columbia engineers to boost their gain, but they could only compensate so much. As a result, Gonsalves's solo lacks presence on the Ellington at Newport LP released by Columbia. That flaw and others were repaired decades later when the VOA tapes, long thought to have vanished, were found in the archives of the Library of Congress. Audio engineers, led by Phil Schaap, were able to synchronize the Columbia and VOA mono recordings to produce the stereo CD Ellington at Newport Complete that was released by Sony in 1999.

In one of jazz history's most famous moments, the band's tight groove and Gonsalves's inspired soloing prompted Elaine Anderson to arise from her seat in one of the front-row boxes and begin dancing in the aisle alongside the VIP box seats. Morton reveals that Anderson had extensive training in various styles of dance and was known for dancing solo at private parties, but her name had remained unknown to most jazz fans. Instead, she was simply "the platinum blond in the black cocktail dress whose dance that night both expressed and inspired the Gonsalves solo" (p. 159). Morton fills that gap by describing Anderson's (nee Zeitz) life before and after NJF '56 as well as the source of her parents' and husband's wealth.

Before narrating Anderson's dance, Morton describes the imaginary "fourth wall," a state of mind that separates performers from their audience. He recalls two times when jazz performances had broken through that wall: a rollicking tenor sax solo by Paul Gonsalves at the Savoy nightclub in Boston c. 1946, and a dance by Elaine Anderson's friend, Carol Haney, at Miami's Fontainebleau hotel early in 1956. By relating these events, Morton implies that Gonsalves's solo and Anderson's dance were not out-of-character. Both had precedents, but Anderson's was the more daring since it required breaking out of her role as an audience member to dance in front of 7,000 fans. As she told Morton in a 2002 telephone interview, "Now you've got to remember: People do that all the time today, but this is a long time ago. Nobody ever did that there. Nobody" (p. 174). Morton then describes Anderson's dance and the reactions of the crowd, photographers, and band in vivid, slow-motion prose. He supplements that account with seventeen black-and-white photographs that show her in various stages of abandon.

In "Where It All Went," the third and last part of his Backstory in Blue, Morton traces the lives of the principals after NJF '56. He describes the post-festival buzz among jazz fans about the events of Saturday night, the subsequent wave of publicity surrounding Ellington, and the production and release of Columbia's Ellington at Newport LP. Morton also provides a deeper look into Columbia's role, as well as that of other labels, in promoting jazz and other styles of popular music during the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Morton continues his profile of Elaine Anderson by relating heretofore unknown details of her life after NJF '56. She met George Avakian for the first time at Newport '57 and their conversation about her photo on the Columbia LP began an association that lasted until her death in 2004. She also met Ellington unexpectedly while living in Los Angeles during the mid-1960s, and that encounter led to her being invited as a special guest to the 1965 performance of Ellington's First Sacred Concert in San Francisco.

The book's penultimate chapter, entitled "The Brotherhood of the Jam," is primarily concerned with the post-1956 careers of Ellington and Gonsalves. Through correspondence with Tom Reney, a jazz DJ and freelance writer, Morton learned that Ellington tolerated Gonsalves's abuse of drugs and alcohol for the remainder of the saxman's life (the two men in fact died within days of each other). The book's final chapter, entitled "Festival Junction," traces the history of the festival post-1956 and social change into the 1960s. Some of the spirit of those years was captured by photographer Bert Stern in his 1960 film Jazz on a Summer's Day.

Riots by drunken college students and other youthful thrill seekers eventually forced municipal authorities to suspend the remainder of the main 1960 festival and to cancel the 1961 jazz and folk festivals. In subsequent years George Wein was able to reconstitute the Newport Jazz Festival, which he claims, "had the greatest years of jazz in '62, '63, and '64" (p. 261). In 1965, the jazz and folk festivals moved from Freebody Park to another site that came to be known as Festival Field. In that same year Bob Dylan famously made his switch from acoustic to electric guitar; as Wein reminisced, "The Newport Jazz Festival really started everything that is happening today" (p. 263). (2)

Morton's book is a significant and impressive contribution to the history of jazz and popular culture in mid-century America. Its strengths are its innumerable details and authenticity, as well as the richness and fluidity of its prose. Given its depth, breadth, and finely etched characterizations, along with the author's background in theater and film, I can imagine the book being adapted for a full-length film or a television mini-series. That said, the study is marred by some of Morton's musical analyses, which demonstrate that his knowledge of cultural history is not matched by a comparable understanding of music theory. Three matters on this point require comment.

The first problem is Morton's discussion of the tritone. Gonsalves opens his solo on G, the pitch that forms a tritone with D-flat, the root of the first chord and the tonic scale degree for the entire solo (pp. 10, 266, 280). While sounding sharp-4 above (or below) 1 does evoke tonal tension and ambiguity, that ambiguity is quickly resolved if sharp-4 resolves to 5, as it does in the example Morton cites, the opening motive of "Maria" from Bernstein's West Side Story. The problem, however, is that Morton mentions only the second note (sharp-4) of that motive and ignores the third, the resolution to 5 (p. 266). In a more general statement, he dwells on certain properties and effects of tritones but ignores others: "A sound completely foreign to a key, the devil in music is extremely dissonant, a restless, ambiguous sound that creates for the ear a spiritual and mysterious tension. It is the ultimate in conjuring, sound that awakens a send of the miraculous" (p. 266). This misconception stems from the notion that the tritone is a note (pitch), specifically sharp-4 or flat-5, rather than an interval. Morton apparently does not realize that tritones are abundant in most functionally tonal music.

Rather than dwelling on the tritone formed between Gonsalves's first note (G-natural) and the tonic scale degree (D-flat), Morton could have focused on the entire first chorus. As my transcription (Ex. 1) shows, Gonsalves resolved G-natural (sharp-4) immediately to A-flat (5) in mm. 1 and 3, just as in "Maria," but he played G-naturals again in mm. 2 and 4 without resolving them. Brackets and labels below the staff indicate the set-type (prime form) of each set of pitches. It is worth noting that all of the pitches in mm. 1-8, except the sixteenth-note E-flat in m. 7, belong to the octatonic collection shown in Ex. 2. Due to their highly symmetrical properties, octatonic collections contain multiple instances of smaller sets of the same type. For example, three instances of [0 1 6] are identified in mm. 1-2 of Ex. 2, all sharing the G-natural/A-flat dyad. In fact, an instance of this trichord type can be formed with every pitch class of an octatonic collection. While it was unusual in 1956 for a jazzman to begin a solo by playing "outside" of the prevailing harmony, Gonsalves did return to the diatonic scale of D-flat major in the last four bars of his first chorus. Morton speculates that Gonsalves's "bold improvisational choice" may have been influenced by the key scheme of the "Diminuendo" that preceded his solo and/or by "the polytonal possibilities Ellington handed him" (p. 280), although he does not explain those possibilities. It is also possible that Gonsalves had been listening to the music of Bartok, since the pitch materials in mm. 1-8 of this chorus closely resemble those in certain pieces by Bartok, most notably the first movement of the Fourth String Quartet. (3)

Example 1: First chorus of Gonsalves's solo

Example 2: The octatonic collection implied in mm. 1-8 of Gonsalves's solo. The other two octatonic collections can be obtained by rotating the "spokes" clockwise or counter-clockwise by one "hour."

Also of concern is Morton's description of the tonal plan of the "Diminuendo and Crescendo," in which he reckons intervals between key areas in pitch space rather than pitch-class space. For example, in trying to bolster his claim that the work "is noteworthy for its rising pitch" (p. 279), Morton considers each new key to be pitched higher than the previous key. This leads to statements like "When Ellington went from the key of C to A-flat, he moved up the scale a minor sixth, raising pitch via an interval most unpredictable" (p. 279), and "to enter the "Crescendo" Duke did a quick pass, playing block chords from D-flat up an expansive minor sixth to A, then up a perfect fifth to the dominant E, and finally up a major seventh to rest at E's leading note, E-flat, whereupon the band joined the conversation" (p. 281). Of course such distances should be measured in pitch-class space, that is, in an ascending or descending direction, whichever is shorter. Thus the distance from C to A-flat is the same (four semitones) as that for the first modulation, E-flat to G. Furthermore, tonal shifts up or down a major or minor third from one major key to another are not unusual in jazz and popular song of the 1920s through the 1950s. In fact, such chromatic mediant key relations occurred in two works that Ellington had played earlier in the evening: Vincent Youmans's "Tea for Two," and the third movement of Ellington's own Newport Festival Suite (whose choruses are based loosely on the tonal-harmonic plan of "Tea for Two").

In one of his far-reaching statements about the effect of pitch and key relations Morton claims that "Elaine Anderson, an engaged listener with a classically trained ear attuned to Beethoven ... would have subliminally responded. Very early in the solo, if not in the opening phrases, what she heard tore her from her seat and propelled her to interpret in dance" (p. 281). Here Morton seems to have confused Elaine Anderson with Elaine Lorillard. In his earlier accounts, he describes Elaine (Zeitz) Anderson's extensive training in dance but says nothing about her taking years of piano lessons, as he did with Elaine (Guthrie) Lorillard. It seems more reasonable to assume that Anderson, as a trained dancer, responded more to the tight groove laid down by the rhythm section and the generally "hot" and hard swinging character of Gonsalves's solo than to abstract pitch and key relations. Morton also makes some claims about Ellington's tonal structures and the practice of certain classical composers, notably Wagner and Stravinsky. Space constraints do not allow for an engagement with these statements, some of which were based on analyses in Gunther Schuller's The Swing Era.

My final concern is with Morton's description of the phrase/chorus structure of the "Diminuendo and Crescendo." In one endnote he refers to "its fourteen-bar phrases, twelve bars plus two-bar extensions" (p. 283). This idea was apparently derived from an uncited review by the English critic Max Harrison. Morton and Harrison were actually concerned with the length of choruses rather than phrases, but even so there are no fourteen-bar choruses in this work. All choruses of the "Diminuendo" are conventional twelve-bar blues except for choruses 7 and 8, each of which has twenty bars. The additional length of chorus 7 (beginning at 1:30) results from repetitions of two-bar groups and four-bar phrases. There is also a tonal shift from E-flat to G major in the middle of the first four-bar phrase. In chorus 8 (beginning at 1:55) Ellington elongated the blues scheme, apparently to effect a modulation from G major to C major. Its metric and tonal-harmonic scheme is shown in Ex. 3. Gonsalves's "interval" consists entirely of twelve-bar blues choruses in D-flat major. All choruses of the "Crescendo" are normal except chorus 46 (11:04), which is a twelve-bar blues with a four-bar tag, and chorus 47 (11:23), which is an eight-bar partial blues chorus with a four-bar tag. The final chorus is interrupted in m. 11 by a coda.

Example 3: Tonal harmonic scheme of chorus 8

Mm.         1-2                  3-4    5-6          7-8

Harm.       [IV.sup.[flat ]7]    I      [V.sup.7]    [V.sup.7]/IV

Key         G

Mm.         9-12                13-14               15-16

Harm.       [IV.sup.[flat]7]
function    [V.sup.7]/IV        [IV.sup.[flat]7]    [I.sup.[flat]7]

Key         G
            C                   C

Mm.         17-18                           19-20

function    [ii.sup.[flat]7] - [V.sup.7]    I - [V.sup.7]/iv


Morton's book begins with a Foreword by Jonathan Yardley who, as a sixteen-year old jazz neophyte, was present on that magical night. Morton interviewed Yardley some fifty years after NJF '56 and weaved Yardley's account into his narrative. Yardley went on to pursue a career in journalism that included a Pulitzer Prize (in 1981) for Distinguished Criticism as book critic for the Washington Post. But in spite of his numerous achievements and honors, Yardley recalled that "that night in Newport stands alone and apart. That I was actually there is something that I can't quite believe, and that gives me undiminished joy" (p. xii). Such joy was shared more remotely by others, like myself, who bought the Ellington at Newport LP soon after its release, and through repeated playings, developed a fondness for Ellington's music and that of other jazz greats. Morton's Backstory provides a fascinating account of a brief but momentous event in jazz history as well as an extensive backstory that couches Ellington's comeback in a rich and deep historical and cultural context.


(1) Derek Jewell, Duke: A Portrait of Duke Ellington (Norton, 1977), 110.

(2) As quoted from a 2003 interview. In recognition of his long and distinguished career as a producer of jazz festivals Wein was recently given the Prix Bruce Lundvall Award at the Montreal Jazz Festival 2011.

(3) In the Fourth String Quartet, see mm. 22-25; also see Mikrokosmos nos. 109 and 113. The label "z" was first applied to the [0 1 6 7] set type by Leo Treitler in his article "Harmonic Procedure in the Fourth Quartet of Bela Bartok," Journal of Music Theory 3, no. 2 (1959): 292-98.
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Author:Williams, J. Kent
Publication:Society for American Music Bulletin
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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