On June 26-27 1959, Duke Ellington appeared at a four-day jazz festival in Tamiment-In-The-Poconos, Pennsylania. Here he presented a new fourteen-minute work called Idiom ’59.
One week later, on July 4 1959, he played it again (in a slightly different version) at the Newport Jazz Festival and possibly at other festivals during the summer.
On September 8, Ellington and the band went into Columbia’s 30th Street Studios to record Idiom ’59 and other highlights of the summer tour. Ten of them – including Idiom ’59 – were issued on the Festival Session album in 1960. The original version – Columbia CL 1400 – was in mono but a stereo version was issued later in the year by CBS France.
After the Columbia recording, Idiom ’59 disappeared from the Ellington repertoire and went into a kind of shadow land. It “attracted little critical attention” (Boyes) and did not create much enthusiasm among Ellington experts and aficionados. When Eddie Lambert wrote about the work in his Listerner’s Guide, he says that “neglect and obscurity have been its lot” even if he considers that there is “enough of fine music to deserve more”.
With this background, it was very welcome that the Ellington ’88 conference in Oldham allowed Idiom ’59 to have a little bit of a comeback.
The Ellington ’88 Orchestra featured it in its “Extended Ellington” concerts and this was preceded by an outstanding presentation of the work by Andrew Homzy – Professor of Jazz Studies at Concordia University in Toronto at the time and a specialist in extended jazz works.
Before coming to Oldham, Homzy had transcribed and analyzed Idiom ’59 in detail. For this he had used three different issues of the Festival Session LP (see below). To the benefit of the conference participants (and now also the readers of this article), he had summarized his work in an eleven-page handout. It goes through the work bar-by-bar and gives a number of examples, which illustrate the work’s motifs and their development.
It is highly recommended to digest it before listening to the presentation. It can be downloaded here.
With the lecture, Homzy wanted to take the listeners through Idiom ’59 to present some of the things he had “discovered in this piece of music to show the strength, the intelligence, the soul, the beauty of Duke Ellington’s work as a composer”.
Roger Boyes was in the audience and got very enthusiastic about Homzy’s presentation. An article he published in Blue Light in 2010 reflects this. “A fascinating paper” he says. Boyes’ full article is available here and we are grateful to Roger to have been allowed to draw from it for this article.