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Duke Ellington—an Icon of The Great American Songbook

It was Duke Ellington’s In a Mellow Tone that prompted Dave Skinner to post the phrase “a mellow tone is a very good thing” on his Web site. When asked how this came about, Skinner replied, “Jazz pianist Greg Tivis introduced me to Ellington’s song, and after playing it a few times, this rhythmic tune really began to resonate with me. This was one side of American jazz that I really identified with…a simple melody with a great capacity for improvisation. It was just so cool!”

Not only did Skinner dig the song, he became an immediate fan of Ellington’s, one of America’s legendary jazz composers, whose melodies represent the very best of The Great American Songbook.

Aside from his jazz innovation, Duke Ellington also composed what came to become some of this country’s most popular songs. Some of these heralded American compositions are Sophisticated Lady, Rocks in My Bed, and Satin Doll. His patented wide interval leaps are found in Don't Get Around Much Any More, Prelude to a Kiss, Solitude, and I Let a Song Go out of My Heart.

Through the 1930s and 1940s, Ellington’s fame spread worldwide, but in the 1950s his musical career began to slump. Rock ‘n roll was on the horizon, and a new generation of kids began to follow the sounds of Bill Haley & The Comets.

The advent of the long playing record allowed for extended improvisation and the freedom of jamming, all of which meant an artist could replicate a concert on a single disc. Add to this an enthusiastic crowd of postwar college students eager to hear the music of new bands like Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis, and Ellington was in the position of playing second fiddle.

Making matters worse, that new thing called a television gave people a reason to stay home. Those old swing ballrooms, filled to capacity on Saturday nights with dancers, were closing. Clearly, the king of American jazz—Ellington—needed a boost and he needed it fast.

That boost would come in the form of the Newport Jazz festival at Freebody Park on Rhode Island. The year was 1956…the same year that Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis performed their last comedy show together at New York City’s Copacabana Club. July 7 was the day that would turn things around for Ellington.

What started out as a downer for Ellington at this outdoor event—thunderstorms were in the area and the Duke of Jazz was miffed by having to go on as the closing set at close to midnight—would soon take a change for the better. You couldn’t convince Ellington of that though, as he could already picture in his mind many of the festival’s fans leaving the event at the same time he took the stage.

It didn’t help matters when the new suite that he had written and dedicated to the festival opened to a lukewarm response.

But then, an extraordinary thing happened.

When tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves began to blow on an old 1937 arrangement that had been rekindled for the festival as Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, what happened next, none of the musicians could ever have predicted.

The band put on an electrifying performance. Gonsalves hadn’t played the piece in a while and struggled initially to find his way around the song. But then the magic happened. Gonsalves improvised 27 choruses in a raunchily R&B and gospel-inflected manner.

It was astonishing. Gonsalves not only played way out of his skin, but he had never been one of Ellington’s star soloists. Record producer George Avakian said of the Newport crowd, "Halfway through Paul's solo, it had become an enormous, single, living organism." Critic Leonard Feather, writing for Down Beat magazine, wrote: "Here and there in the reduced, but still multitudinous crowd, a couple got up and started jitterbugging. Within minutes, the whole of Freebody Park was transformed as if struck by a thunderbolt ... hundreds of spectators climbed up on their chairs to see the action; the band built the magnificent arrangement to its perennial peak and the crowd, spent, sat limply wondering what could follow this."

Overnight, Ellington was back on top. His band’s performance produced one of the loudest ovations in Newport festival history. And because of Ellington’s band-leading prowess, the Duke of Jazz made the cover of Time Magazine, which declared, "the Ellington band was once again the most exciting thing in the business. Ellington himself had emerged from a long period of quiescence, and was once again bursting with ideas and inspiration."

It was a new dawn for Duke Ellington, and he would make the most of it. His creativity flourished and his orchestra gained new worldwide appeal. This was a momentum that he sustained until his death in 1974.

All of which brings us back to where we started and why Dave Skinner says, “A mellow tone is a very good thing.” It always has been and always will be. Duke Ellington knew that way back when, and Skinner supports that musical mindset today.

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