Somewhere around the age of 13, I became interested in jazz music. The modern era of long playing records was underway by then, and I soon had a collection that included the great bands and soloists of that era. I wasn’t the only kid in Claremont who was interested in jazz at that time, and a few of us would go to weekend jam sessions and hear amateurs who sounded like pros. One of them was my friend Ray’s father, who had been a professional drummer but gave it up to raise a family and open an insurance agency.
The first Newport Jazz Festival was in 1954. I turned 16 early the next year and asked my father if I could borrow his car for a few days so that Ray and I could drive to Rhode Island to attend that summer’s Festival. He said yes (would I have done the same when my children were barely 16?), we found two other guys who wanted to go, and off we went that July.
What an experience—jazz under the stars three nights in a row, and the best seats at $5 a piece. All the greats were there—Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, who played his historic “Round Midnight” with Thelonious Monk on piano, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, Ella Fitzgerald—and the big bands of Woody Herman, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. If I could keep reliving those three nights in Newport, Rhode Island—sort of an expanded version of the movie “Groundhog Day,”—I would gladly do so.
More than 50 years have passed, my musical tastes have grown somewhat, but nothing has equaled the pure pleasure of the music we heard that summer. I don’t know what I did with the programs—probably they went the way of my baseball cards—but you can buy the original program on eBay for about $60. I think I’ll pass.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was to meet Duke Ellington when I was in college, a few years later. That experience, too, has stayed with me. In fact, it has become indelible.
The Ellington band was performing at a jazz club in Boston called Storyville, named after a section of New Orleans known for jazz and less savory activities. They agreed to perform a “runout” concert at our Rhode Island campus, and a friend of mine was in charge of the event. He knew I liked jazz and asked if I would like to go to Boston and show some of the musicians how to find the gymnasium where they were to perform.
A few days later I found myself at Storyville, and there he was—Duke Ellington. Let’s go, said his driver Mo, and we got into the Duke’s robin’s egg blue Cadillac—Mr. Ellington and Mo in the front, Paul Gonsalves (best known for nearly causing a riot at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival with his 27-chorus saxophone solo during Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”), Mrs. Gonsalves, and me in the back. Pure bliss.
Then things started not to go so well. I was the guide, and we left with enough time to arrive by 2:00 PM. I thought I knew how to get there, of course, but it turned out that even in the small state of Rhode Island, you can get hopelessly lost. Which is what we did. Mr. Ellington was not pleased.
Decades later I was at a concert in Boston and told this story to an acquaintance. It had taken that long before I could go public with the story. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my acquaintance was also a jazz fan, and a collector of books on the subject. The next day he sent me a page from a remarkable book called “Duke Ellington Day by Day.” That book contains a chronology of every concert Ellington ever performed, and there it is, in black and white:
March 14, 1959 – this afternoon concert … was scheduled to start by 2 p.m. When Ellington did not show up on time, a quartet … began to entertain the waiting crowd at 2:30 and played for an hour before Ellington and Paul Gonsalves completed the sextet for the remainder of the program.”
I am grateful to the author of the book for reducing the delay by at least 30 minutes, and even more so for not mentioning me.