Were I a writer, the story of Elaine Anderson – the girl who launched seven thousand cheers at Newport, 1956 – is certainly a story to which I would turn my hand.
Famously, Elaine Anderson danced through the twenty-seven choruses of Paul Gonsalves’s extemporized tenor solo during the interval between Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.
You can imagine the trajectory of the plot: the bored housewife, simmering gently behind the stucco façade of her des res in Rhode Island; the stifling small-mindedness and triviality of the upper set; cabined, cribbed and confined now, a mother of two, the woman still in the first flush of youth who once entertained a career on the stage. For one night only, her lithesome and incendiary Terpsichore caught in the explosions of countless cameras, she wakes the next morning to find her picture across all the newspapers and, eventually on the back cover of the album that signaled Duke Ellington’s renaissance. The mutterings of her discontented husband at her antics, the fame of which spreads far and wide; the slow disintegration of her marriage; the flight to Europe and Paris…
Or maybe not.
And yet. That moment, that minute (and each second in it…) has come to stand for something quite significant. Before the swinging sixties (and, after all, the sixties didn’t invent swing anyway), perhaps, here is a moment of self-transcendence, of feminine –rather than feminist – liberation. A stage on the road to Woodstock?
I’ve spent a pleasant half term holiday reading Backstory in Blue by John Fass Morton. It is a fascinating book which holds up the jewel of Ellington’s famous performance at the jazz festival to the light and examines every facet.
It was, allegedly, Basie drummer Jo Jones keeping time with a rolled up newspaper, the insidious beat picked up by bassist Jimmy Woode and drummer Sam Woodyard which telegraphed the excitement upon which Gonsalves strung his barnstorming solo which, in turn, was the twitch upon the thread which made Miss Anderson dance.
Thinking about the very next album Ellington waxed as art of his new contract with Columbia, I found myself ahead of Mr Morton, for the events highlighted at Newport make a sudden sort of sense of A Drum is a Woman. Morton draws particular attention to the composition Congo Square – but, of course, the whole album is a paean to a woman as the seductive beat of the music. And just look at the ‘cheesecake’ cover. One might think the art department would have looked elsewhere to represent the beat of African music but, then, blondes, as we all know, have more funds… I wonder is the cover a nod to Miss Anderson?
The only quibble I would have with Mr Morton is in his assertion that in her short dance career, Elaine Anderson appeared in Frank Sinatra’s first starring movie Step Lively. Now, whilst the Internet is hardly a fount of information beyond reproach, a little surfing and I found that credit going to the Elaine Anderson who became, later, Mrs John Steineck (another Ellington coincidence with his Suite Thursday tribute to the writer). Confusion is, perhaps, maintained since Elaine Anderson Steinbeck died in 2003, just two years before Elaine Anderson nee Zeitz. I wonder, can clarification on this point be forthcoming?
Elaine’s story, that of Paul Gonsalves and Ellington’s career immediately prior to Newport; developments in popular music at the time and the festival scene are told in fascinating detail in John Fass Morton’s book which is available here.
Maybe it is stories which will draw the uninitiated into the music. Whilst Ken Burns’ Jazz with its chocolate-box-lid version of history had its limitations, nevertheless, the events of that day, 7 July, 1956 are told well here: