In July 1956, the great jazz composer and bandleader Duke Ellington’s ensemble leveled the Newport Jazz Festival, swinging like titans and nearly inciting riots at one of America’s longest-running, most prestigious concerts. The set’s centerpiece, “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue” meshed together two pieces Duke wrote in the late 1930’s, “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue,” comprising the A- and B-sides of a 78 RPM record – bridged together by an iconic barn-burning tenor saxophone solo.
A bit of context here: by the mid-1950’s, the golden era of big-band jazz was long over, giving way to new forms of popular dance-hall music like the burgeoning rock and rhythm & blues movements. Although Duke made tremendous music in every decade in his career, during this time, he kept his band on the road on the back of royalties for old compositions. This Newport show, and this “Diminuendo” performance, almost single-handedly revitalized Duke’s career, and the subsequent “Live at Newport” album remains Duke’s highest-selling and most well-known release.
Without boring you too much with the theory going on in the piece (I highly recommend my teacher and composer Darcy James Argue’s Do the Math article for a more tech-y discussion), Duke is at once nodding to the past while also anticipating the future. Some of the chord motions, voicings, and structures were completely radical for jazz – you might’ve heard Gustav Mahler, Maurice Ravel and Frederic Chopin doing this stuff, but not popular music composers in the 1930’s.
The outro of “Diminuendo” (on the live recording, the solo piano line from 3:19-3:47 before the long sax solo) is particularly interesting and worth a brief theory note. Duke is on piano, vamping on a Db dominant 7 sharp 9 chord. You probably know this chord well, even if you know nothing about jazz theory. Jimi Hendrix used it on “Purple Haze,” James Brown used it on “Sex Machine,” and Herbie Hancock wrote entire albums around this chord and harmonies like it. Party Smasher founder and Dillinger Escape Plan guitarist Ben Weinman used it on the main riff of “Prancer” (interestingly, as a kind of “polychord” C7 sharp 9 stacked over an open E as the root). Converge uses it, Voivod uses it, Revocation uses it, and Dream Theater uses it. It’s literally the sound of stank, a chord so dangerous and delicious that musicians like James Brown and Herbie Hancock built entire careers on it.
According to Darcy and The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson, when Duke put this chord to paper in 1937, it was the first time in jazz (and therefore popular music of the 20th century, period) that this chord was ever used. Thirty years before Hendrix and James Brown. And it’s just one chord, one moment in a rich and rewarding piece of music.
You might think from reading this that “Diminuendo” is strictly an exercise in theory. But that’s the farthest from the truth – just listen to the damn thing! It’s a pure joy to listen to, yet it’s also a beautiful example of how a great composer can use contemporary conceptions of what music is “supposed to be” to fuck with an audience. The 12-bar blues is one of the most common forms in modern music, and Duke plays with our anticipations by smoothly switching between keys and ideas, rolling riffs over the barline, extending the turnarounds at the end of each chorus, and machine-gunning complex harmonies so quickly that we barely notice what just happened. Yet through it all, the focus of the piece is always on momentum – delivering beautiful melodies and engaging structures.
It’s impossible to talk about “Diminuendo,” particularly the Newport Festival recording from 1956, without talking about tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves’ scorching 27-chorus solo. As far as I can tell, up to this point, this was the longest solo in popular music – so swinging, so insane, so long, that Gonsalves almost incited a riot during the festival, and the crowd had to be calmed down after the piece before the concert could be resumed. Nowadays, especially in heavy metal, we take extended solo breaks for granted. But what’s so incredible about Gonsalves’ solo in 1956 is that he wasn’t trying to boost his own ego so much as he just played, swung, and reacted to the crowd.
For me, the crazy thing about Duke Ellington is how almost every piece of music he wrote can be enjoyed, studied, and lived with. His music is instantly recognizable and infinitely pleasurable – deemed by scholars and musicians as the “Ellington Effect” – and he anticipated so much of what was going to happen in so many genres of music in the decades following his death in 1974.