Paul Gonsalvez and the greatest sax solo everLanglois Music
Duke Ellington and his big band were at a low point in their popularity by the time they played the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival but one epic solo by Paul Gonsalvez helped change all of that.
In 1942, the musicians union began what would become a two year strike which prevented instrumental musicians from recording for any of the major record labels. Because vocalists were not included in the strike, singers like Frank Sinatra were able to capitalize on a new popularity and shift from secondary members of the ensemble to the focal point.
By the time the strike ended, the big band era was dead. Casual fans focused on the top vocalists of the day and jazz die-hards were enamored by the new sounds of bebop which was born out of the clubs during the strike.
Decreased popularity and the constant increase of travel expenses for a 19 person orchestra created a real problem for the same orchestras who ruled the airwaves and dance halls just a few years earlier.
Fast forward to the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival.
The Duke Ellington Orchestra was tasked with two performances that evening. The first was a short set at the very top of the festival and the last was, arguably, the most important performance of Ellington’s entire career.
Closing out the festival, Ellington opened with one of his most famous compositions, “Take the A Train” and then went into a serious of tunes collected as the “Festival Suite”. The crowd was sedate, tired, and uninterested. And then came “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” with “an interval by Paul Gonsalvez”.
The first of the two tunes opens with a solo by Duke and launches into an uptempo swing with high energy lines and hits performed with the precision and hard swing that the Ellington Orchestra was famous for. To bridge the two tunes an “interval” was played which featured Paul Gonsalvez improvising over a 12-bar blues for 27 choruses.
During the interval, most of the band sits out while bass, drums, and piano support the Gonsalves marathon. As the solo continues, hollers of encouragement from the horn section (and Duke) can be heard and the crowd begins to encourage him as well. Then they begin to stand up and dance. Then they begin to scream. By the end of the 27th chorus, the crowd has been worked into a frenzy and when the horn section returns for the second song, there is a new energy and drive that is equal parts response to the frenzy and potentially inciting a riot.
By the end of the 15 minute piece, the quiet, respectful crowd is a riotously enthused and excited mob of people and the Duke Ellington Orchestra were back as one of the most important forces in the jazz world. The recordings he and his band made following the resurgence in popularity are among the most creative, difficult, and groundbreaking of the era and Ellington’s legacy was not that of a Duke but of a King.
And it was all thanks to the power of one live performance.
Take a listen to the entire piece. Put on some headphones, close your eyes and let the magic of this performance envelop you from Duke’s opening solo, to Gonsalvez’s blistering solo, to the screaming trumpet conclusion and let the swing wash over you as only the Ellington orchestra could.