Though Ellington is one of the most famous leaders in jazz, and probably the greatest composer in the music’s history, this is the first set I have ever heard (deliberately) by his band. The reason for that is simply because I got into jazz through Miles Davis, whose entire career has been played in the post-Big Band world. The little inquiry I’ve made into earlier jazz has been into Dixieland.
In 1956, Big Band was definitely passe: Bop and Afro Cuban had existed for about a decade each and Cool for more than half a decade. Moreover, Hard Bop was just taking shape at this very time that Ellington and his band performed at the Newport Jazz Festival. So it’s no wonder to me that this style of music had fallen out of favour. (The notes indicate that Ellington and co. were at a bit of a career nadir.)
I think the performance itself is more legendary for the crowd response and for the impact that it had on the career of Ellington and his band members rather than the actual music. Most of the music is straight up big band of the kind you might expect to hear in the early ’40s, though they have added some nice touches: the playing is tighter and “harder” on some tracks than it would have been and, most notoriously, there is the legendary and ridiculous solo on “In Blue.” It’s not that the solo is great in technical sense, but rather that it was probably awe-inspiring for someone to play that long, especially in a big band setting. (Apparently it caused a riot.)
The music is very strong for what it is, but this was 1956, and I can’t help thinking that though Ellington had updated his music somewhat he was still living in another era. This is very well performed but it is still more iconic than it is great. It’s near-great, but it’s not quite the classic that people make it out to be.
(The complete version includes both the actual concert and the studio duplicate created for release in ’56 because of a perceived lack of quality in the original live recordings.)