“Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” Duke Ellington
Warning: what follows is not nearly hipster enough and it’s way too long, but I think it’s important just the same. Indulge me. Listen.
My dad is a retired substance abuse counselor who is wildly, eerily smart and sends me jazz CDs all the time. They mostly wash to the edges of the months along with the other things in the burgeoning envelopes that arrive from Missouri: letters in exquisite block print, newspaper clippings, random T-shirts and the bags of trail mix he makes himself.
My relationship with music, like my relationship with Dad, is mercurial. I rarely have the patience to digest the upheaval of the centuries that he regularly floats my way: a 10-CD retrospective of the history of jazz guitar that he culled and burned, 14 crates of mint vinyl delivered in two successive drives from Missouri, a 20-minute lecture on George Fox and the origins of the Quaker church delivered while standing in his underwear in the middle of the hotel room we shared when I went to visit him for the first time in 17 years.
But one day, I throw in a mix of sax tenors he sent on my birthday two years ago, and there’s this one song…I’m in the car, gaping at the speakers like a man fresh out of a 30-year coma watching a hovercar go by his hospital window. What the fuck is this?
An email to my dad, 4/11/07:
Was thinking of you this morning as I drove in to Boulder, playing that tenors mix you made for my 36th. It’s one of those mixes that scratches a deep itch you didn’t know you had. It guides me through the mornings, lending buoyancy to the crush of morning traffic, particularly track 5, that indefatigable explosion of joy. I can drive halfway to work and that nut is still in the middle of his solo. Wow. I am enjoying it immensely.
An email from my dad, 4/11/07:
In that case you must have been listening to Paul Gonsalves lathering up the crowd at Newport on Track7! He was making history with the Ellington orchestra that night. you betcha.
The rough story goes: by the time he was invited to the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, Ellington’s career was starting to hit the skids. He was the heavyweight champ of the ‘30s and ‘40s, but the popularity of bebop and hard bop were siphoning off his audience and the expense of carting his giant band around was taking its toll. Key musicians had left. Ellington’s band was given the closing set, which he found demoralizing. Supposedly, by the time his orchestra took the stage, people were already filing out, tired and bored with his first few numbers.
Then they played “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” the two movements separated by a six-minute-plus, 27-chorus, honking sax solo by Paul Gonsalves. By the time they were done with the song, people were running back in and those who hadn’t left were standing on their chairs and jumping for joy. That appearance reignited his career for two more decades.
You can hear the band start to go bonkers, shouting as Gonsalves rounds the last few turns; the big bass and drums are walking the melody along, simultaneously hypnotic and electrifying. If the hairs on your arms aren’t standing up by the time they round out the 14th minute — the trumpet man blowing at the absolute outer edge of the instrument’s capability — then you were born without a soul and there’s nothing that Duke Ellington, my dad or anybody else can do for you.
I’ve been like a proselyte with the damn thing ever since, and been rewarded by finding this song’s threads running through the lives of others I hold in esteem. I ran into Paulo at Dazzle, like I do every four months, and mention the song. “27-chorus solo, man,” his face getting serious. I got to tell my friend Rodney Franks, who I also don’t see often enough and who I only hang out with by proxy during his 4-7 p.m. weekday slot on KUVO, that I’d found the song. “I know every note of that solo,” he says. “I was 13 the first time I heard it. Ellington said that he was born that night at Newport. That jam put the festival on the map.”
I made my marketing VP listen to it yesterday on the way to a sales call, and have found a way to mention it in almost every conversation I’ve had since, and now it’s time to pass it on again, from 1956 to my dad to me to you. May it give you the joy it’s given me. May it connect you to the great course of things that bind us. And may you too be born at Newport, God bless your soul.
Col. Hector Bravado
From Denver, Colorado
P.S. There’s also a good moral here for all of us who grind, falter, fly and fail in alternate measure: when in doubt, just show up and play your fucking set.