Duke Ellington and Paul Gonsalves

“Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue”

This is one of the most brilliant pieces of improvisation in the history of jazz, particularly the Big Band variety. Originally composed by Ellington as two separate pieces, “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue,” with a piano interval to link them, legend has it that Gonsalves managed to successfully negotiate switching the preferred instrument to saxophone at the jazz monument Birdland on June 30, 1951.

On this particular day five years later, the song began simply enough, with the piano and  percussion section rhythmically setting the stage. The crowd is being told musically to take their seats. Then the horns sweep in to let you know the show is on. The winds call out their part, telling a comparatively subdued story as the trumpets, saxophones and trombones reply with tinny sarcasm. Up to this point, the tune has the trademark eloquence and technical quality of any Ellington work.

Then, Gonsalves’ saxophone saunters in unassumingly (possibly because it was being played into the wrong microphone). Over the course of 27 choruses–nearly 6.5 minutes–he rips off one of the most memorable solos in the history of music, gaining strength and altitude and sheer audacity with each passing bar. Band members begin to shout encouragement. They know what’s happening.

The sound resonates through the event, the crowd is lifted off their butts. A “striking platinum blonde woman in a black evening dress, named Elaine Anderson, jumped from her box seat and started dancing,” confirming the energy level had skyrocketed and giving it a further boost. Fellow attendants begin standing on chairs and whistling loudly as the bridge nears its midpoint, then applaud generously as the “wailing interval” gives way to the remainder of the song.

The horns let everyone know it’s time to get back to the sheet music. The winds announce themselves in the distance, gathering steam as they march forward, belting their airy tone in epic unison. The horns answer with force of their own. Like rival cheering sections, each throws their best at the other.

They’ve changed the environment. The air is on fire. If there had been a roof, it would have blown off and landed miles away. The song is nearing its close. Lungs are burning. Fingers ache from the furious activity. Nonetheless, the finish is a flourish and the crowd erupts in joyful gratitude for the honor of being witness to this ingenuity, this virtuosity, this majesty of moment-to-moment inspiration.

This is a description of the first known recording, performed live at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, which can be purchased here. (The episode embedded from YouTube above came later.)


4 Rules for Inspiration


1 Response to “Duke Ellington and Paul Gonsalves”

  1. 1 4 Rules for Inspiration « MeBuilding Trackback on March 5, 2010 at 11:03 pm
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