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Mark Twain’s Riverboat Restaurant, NYC 1966
In 1966, Duke Ellington and his orchestra did apparently not have a long-term engagement in New York (NYC) until late in the year. They did three major international tours in the Spring (Europe, Africa and Japan) and performed at the Antibes Jazz Festival in July. For the rest, the band basically played concerts and did gigs on the West Coast and in Northwestern and Midwestern states. (source: The Duke – Where and When)
There were also two recording sessions – one for the soundtrack of Assault on A Queen and two for the RCA album Popular Ellington.
At the end of October, Ellington was briefly back in New York but mostly for engagements in Upstate New York and New Jersey. The visit back East ended with a Concert of Sacred Music at Mount St. Mary’s College, Newburgh, N.Y. on November 6.
Then the band went West again for a mixture of concerts, dances and seminars in Arizona and California. On November 15th, Ellington performed for the first time his Concert of Sacred Music in a synagogue – Temple Emmanuel Of Beverly Hills.
Circa November 20th, Ellington was back again in New York, this time for a longer club engagement. He was contracted to play for two weeks at the Mark Twain’s Riverboat Restaurant. The band started there on November 21.
The restaurant/club was located in the Empire State Building on 350, 5th Avenue at 34th Street in New York.
It had opened on April 16, 1964 in a space that originally housed a restaurant in the famous Longchamps chain of New York restaurants.
In 1959, the restaurant entrepreneur Jan Mitchell had acquired the chain with the purpose to put it back on good footing.
He originally tried a German concept for the restaurant in Empire State Building but it did not work out well so he decided to try something else.
The new concept was to make it a place for jazz – a place for Big Band Names – and over the next three years most of the big bands that existed at the time played there. They were not only jazz orchestra but Count Basie appeared there and both Charlie Barnet and Artie Shaw put together orchestras to play in the club.
In 1967, Jan Mitchell sold the Longchamps chain and with it Mark Twain’s Riverboat Restaurant. It continued to be a place for music but more of the pop style of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
The original restaurant opened in 1938 and occupied the entire northeast section of the first floor, basement and sub-basement of Empire State Building. It had a seating capacity of 1.000 persons. Mark Twain’s Riverboat Restaurant was half the size, was located on two floors below ground level and had a seating capacity of 500 persons.
But back to Ellington’s two-week engagement at Mark Twain’s Riverboat in November-December 1966.
DESS member and passionate photographer Olle Lindholm lived in New York at the time. ” I went to Mark Twain Riverboat Restaurant as often as I had time and could afford it. I enjoyed listening to the big bands that played there. It had fantastic acoustics and hearing for instance Xavier Cugat with eight bongos in his band there was an incredible experience.”
“I went to the club during the first week of Ellington’s engagement and I brought with me my Leica. Since it had no flashlight. I did not bother to ask anyone for permissions to take photos and I when had Ellington to pose for my camera he did not mind.”
Olle took two rolls of film and the photos catchs the atmosphere of the evening from the opening to the end. Together, they form a unique document of how an Ellington performance at a night club unfolded. We will come back to this later in the article.
Ellington’s stay at Mark Twain Riverboat Restaurant was well covered by radio and television. The independent radio station WNEW broadcasted from the opening night and WNEW’s legendary disc jockey William B. Williams was the announcer. On November 25, CBS did a U.S. Treasury Departement broadcast from the restaurant and another one in the week thereafter. On November 29, NBC did a Tonight Show telecast.
Here is the next to complete WNEW broadcast with the different numbers presented by Duke. Here and there in the broadcast there is an interesting and funny dialogue between Duke William B. It is well worth listening to it
The broadcast starts with Take The “A” Train. Then follows The Old Circus Train with Jimmy Hamilton as the main soloist, this time he is playing tenor saxophone.
Harry Carney is next with Sophisticated Lady. At the end he demonstrates circular breathing when holding a long tone at the end of the song.
The broadcast continues with Satin Doll. It has an unusual piano intro by Duke and Cootie Williams and Paul Gonsalves are the other main soloists.
Then follows Tutti For Cootie (aka Fade Up), an unusual version of Mood Indigo and a somewhat wild version of The Opener, with solos by Paul Gonsalves, Buster Cooper and Cat Anderson.
Passion Flower and Things Ain’t What They Used To Be, which are next in the broadcast, are omitted here due to the fairly poor sound quality on our original tape but we have kept the interesting dialogue between Duke and William B.
The program then continues with Wings And Things before most of the band members are heard in Jam With Sam. Duke signs off the broadcast with Satin Doll.
So back to Olle Lindholm’s photos.
As said before, they really tell the story of how an evening could unroll during Ellington’s engagement at Mark Twain’s Riverboat