Reader writes: The Monitor and musical history

A letter to the editor for the July 30, 2018 weekly magazine.

Peter Main
Duke Ellington is seen in 1972.

The Monitor and musical history

I wanted to pass along this interesting and unique story of how a rolled-up copy of The Christian Science Monitor played a role in what many say is the greatest saxophone solo in musical history. 

A few days ago, I was looking at my collection of 33 r.p.m. records and one of them is titled “Ellington at Newport.” This album is the recording of the famous 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. On the back of the album is a note written by album producer George Avakian. Here is what he writes in the first paragraph: “Overshadowing everything else, including the introduction of a new work written expressly for this recording at Newport, Duke Ellington’s performance of ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue’ in the last set of the 1956 Festival turned into one of the most extraordinary moments in the history of this annual event.”

The highlight was the incredible saxophone solo performance of Paul Gonsalves. He “played for 27 straight choruses,” Mr. Avakian notes. 

Avakian writes, “Out of sight of the crowd was an unsung hero who is quite possibly the person most responsible for this explosive performance. No one will ever know for sure, but perhaps the Ellington band might never have generated that terrific beat if it weren’t for Jo Jones, who had played drums that night with [jazz pianist] Teddy Wilson. Jo happened to be in a little runway below the left front of the stage, at the base of the steps leading up from the musicians’ tent behind the bandstand. From this vantage point, hidden from the crowd by a high canvas, but visible from the shoulders up to the musicians, Jo egged on the band with nothing more than appreciation and a rolled-up copy of the ‘Christian Science Monitor.’ As Duke (whose voice you can hear from time to time) drove the band in the early stages of ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo,’ first the reed section and then the trombones and finally the rest of the band picked up on Jo, who was shouting encouragement and swatting the edge of the stage with the newspaper, about eighteen inches from my squatting haunch.”

I thought this story was worth passing along.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

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