Spring term of my sophomore year in college, I took a jazz history class, mostly for kicks and giggles, though I think it fulfilled some American cultures credit requirement. I became a jazz music fan because of it.
We learned about Duke Ellington and “Take the A Train,” and that song was magic to me – how Billy Strayhorn named it after the directions Ellington gave him to his Harlem apartment. It became synonymous with New York in my mind.The version we heard was from the 1956 classic recording, “Ellington at Newport.”
That record, man. I don’t even remember everything we learned about it, and I’m sure we never listened to the whole thing, but I was captivated by the story surrounding Ellington and his orchestra at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. Paul Gonsalves’ saxophone solo and how the whole performance revived the Duke’s career and how insanely great the music is.
Ever since that class, I have been on a mission to find that record in a real record store. I’m sure I could just buy one online, but for years I have thumbed through all the Duke Ellington albums any time I’m in a record store, holding my breath in hopes that “Ellington at Newport” lurks somewhere in the stacks.
So after almost five years of searching, where did I find it?
In a mountain barn in the Catskills, miles from anywhere, tucked among the coolest collection of jazz records I’ve ever seen. I went away with some friends for the weekend, and this house was legitimately the coolest place – incredible high ceilings, rooms and staircases popping out left and right, tucked away in the middle of nowhere. As I was exploring its hidden corners, I found a long shelf of records. Lots of Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis. Then Duke Ellington. Then “Ellington at Newport.”
It was glorious. Maybe this record is only elusive to me, or maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places. But since I’ve been on my search, this was the first time I found it. I couldn’t keep it, obviously. But I found it, and I loved it.
In a cruel twist of fate, we couldn’t find a turntable to actually listen to the record with, but I savored the liner notes – an essay by record producer George Avakian, mostly about Paul Gonsalves’ sax solo during Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue – and photos of Duke and his orchestra from the performance. I didn’t need to listen to it, anyway. Finding it in the first place was the big deal.
For whatever strange reason, holding a physical copy of “Ellington at Newport” is more important to me than listening to the music. But in this collection, I came across the physical copies of a couple albums I’ve only ever thought about in terms of their songs.
One was “The Count Meets the Duke,” a Basie-Ellington collaboration, which had incredible liner notes playing off the royal titles in the musicians’ names. “All this business about royalty has always thrown me. Just who outranks whom and how and why has never been very clear….To get straightened out, I went straight to the only Count I’ve ever known, who immediately put the Duke in the top slot.”
And then there was one of my favorite albums of all time, “Sinatra-Basie: An Historical Musical First.” I honestly think I’ve seen this in record form before, but I must never have stopped to read the back, which I know was written as promotional copy but actually speaks some serious truth: “…when Sinatra touches a song, it never subsequently sounds quite right sung by anyone else…” Ahhh.
Obsessing over these jazz records was actually a pretty small part of a wonderful, lazy weekend. Now that I’m out of the mountains and in the city, my quest for a copy of “Ellington at Newport” continues.