The greatest performance of [Ellington's] career... It stood for everything that jazz had been and could be.
Jazz promoter George Wein
It is included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die," ranking it one of the most famous... in jazz history."
Duke led off with Take the 'A' Train," followed by a new composition by Duke and Billy Strayhorn, a suite of three pieces: Festival Junction," Blues to Be There," and Newport Up." This suite was intended to be the showstopper, but the reception was not as enthusiastic as was hoped.
Following the Festival suite, Duke called for Harry Carney's baritone saxophone performance of Sophisticated Lady." Then the orchestra played Day In, Day Out." Following this, Duke announced that they were pulling out some of our 1938 vintage": a pair of blues, Diminuendo in Blue" and Crescendo in Blue" joined by an improvised interval, which Duke announced would be played by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves.
Ellington had been experimenting with the reworking for several years before the Newport performance; a release of one of his Carnegie Hall concerts of the 1940s presented the two old blues joined by a wordless vocal passage, Transbluecency," but in time he chose to join the pair by a saxophone solo, handing it to Gonsalves, experimenting with it in shorter performances before the Newport show, where Ellington is believed to have told Gonsalves to blow as long as he felt like blowing when the solo slot came. It came after two choruses of an Ellington piano break at what was formerly the conclusion of Diminuendo in Blue."
As performed at Newport, the experiment ended up revamping the Ellington reputation and fortune for the rest of Ellington's life. The previous experiments culminated in a 27-chorus solo by Gonsalvessimple, but powerfulbacked only by bassist Jimmy Woode, drummer Sam Woodyard, and Ellington himself pounding punctuating piano chords and (with several audible band members as well) hollering urgings-on ("Come on, Pauldig in! Dig in!") to his soloist. The normally sedate crowd was on their feet dancing in the aisles, reputedly provoked by a striking platinum blonde woman in a black evening dress, Elaine Anderson, getting up and dancing enthusiastically. When the solo ended and Gonsalves collapsed in exhaustion, Ellington himself took over for two choruses of piano solo before the full band returned for the Crescendo in Blue" portion, finishing with a rousing finale featuring high-note trumpeter Cat Anderson.
Columbia Records recorded the concert and an album soon followed. Duke appeared soon after on the cover of Time, and his resurgent popularity lasted throughout the rest of his life. Some of his best albums occurred during the next decade and a half, until age and illness began to claim some of Duke's band members and, in 1974, Ellington himself.
In 1996, a tape was discovered in the annals of the Voice of America radio broadcasts which changed everything. It turned out that the 1956 album which was produced had indeed been fabricated with studio performances mixed with some live recordings and artificial applause.
Only about 40% of the 1956 recording was actually live. The reason for this was that Ellington felt the under-rehearsed Festival suite had not been performed up to recording release standards, and he wished to have a better version on tape if it was to be issued on record. Producer George Avakian did as Ellington asked and the band entered the studio immediately after the festival. Avakian mixed in the studio version with portions of the live performance. The applause was dubbed onto the original release to cover up the fact that Gonsalves had been playing into the wrong microphone and was often completely inaudible.
On the 1999 reissue, the VoA live recording and the live Columbia tapes were painstakingly pieced together using digital technology to create a true stereophonic recording of the most well-known Ellington performance of the past fifty years, this time with Gonsalves's solo clearly heard, though the beginning of the audience cheering and noise at around the seventh or eighth chorus of the solo can still be heard as well. (Stereophonic LP records were not mass-produced until 1957, the year after the recording.) The 1999 re-issue of this record, Ellington at Newport (Complete), preserves one of the most inspired performances of the Duke Ellington Orchestra's career.