Jazz giant Duke Ellington performed, recorded album at Travis in 1958

  • Published
  • By Nick DeCicco
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. — All right, all you hep cats and kittens. Let's swing on back to March 4, 1958, at Travis Air Force Base, California.

Get on your finest rags because tonight we're trucking over to the NCO Club tonight to see Duke Ellington. You dig?

"The Duke," who died in 1974, was one of the most important figures in the history of American jazz. A pianist and prolific composer, Ellington's career spanned 60 years, from his early, steady appearances at the Cotton Club in New York City in the 1920s to decades as the leader a touring ensemble around the world.

It's a legacy so expansive that his 1958 show at Travis -- the first of three at the base, with others Oct. 11, 1962 and Sept. 20, 1964 -- is just one brief beat in the long song of his career.

Details of the shows have been lost over time. However, the 1958 performance was recorded. It stayed unreleased for nearly 30 years until it popped up in 1987 as "Dance Concerts California, 1958," one installment in a 10-part set titled "The Private Collection." The set was licensed by The Duke's son, Mercer, who died in 1996 after following in his father's footsteps as a musician and composer.

Because Ellington's 1958 show at Travis contained 37 titles in two sets during a four-hour period, the live album is a collection of highlights from the night. Its tracks have appeared in a variety of formats throughout the years, including compact disc, audio cassette, vinyl record and streaming platforms.

Ellington played some of his signature tunes that night, such as "The Mooch" and "Autumn Leaves." The crowd cheers and claps throughout, with Ellington introducing band members and song titles.

At the conclusion of "Sophisticated Lady," he tells the crowd, "You've been so wonderful, so inspiring, that we have to grant your wish by giving you a coffee break."

"That was 'Take the "A" Train' and you were bouncing," he says after perhaps the best-known composition of his career.

According to David Palmquist, an Ellington aficionado in British Columbia, Canada, who hosts a slate of websites dedicated to chronicling Ellington's career and recordings in detail, the 1958 gig comes during what he calls "Ellington’s mature period," his age just shy of 60.

Many of his band members appearing that night had played with him for decades, such as saxophonists Harry Carney and Russell Procope, as well as trumpeters Harold "Shorty" Baker and Clark Terry. Terry later went on to a prolific solo career of his own.

The show came during a late-career renaissance for Ellington, sparked by a 1956 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. A tenor saxophone solo by Paul Gonsalves, who also appeared at the 1958 Travis show, drove the crowd into a frenzy. Excitement about the performance, captured in The Duke's 1956 album "Ellington at Newport," landed him on the cover of Time magazine and started a late-career resurgence in popularity.

"Would they have made it without Newport? Of course," Palmquist said. "Ellington was a genius surrounded by his sidemen, most of them musical geniuses, and his incredible collaborator, Billy Strayhorn."

The 1958 Travis appearance kicks off a three-night run of weeknight shows at Air Force bases in Northern California. Ellington followed the Travis show with a performance March 5, 1958, at Mather Air Force Base, an installation near Sacramento which closed in 1993, and concluded the trio of shows March 6, 1958, at Hamilton Air Force Base, California, which was inactivated in 1973, decommissioned in 1974 and operated by the Army from 1983 to 1988.

The three shows were booked as dances.

"Ellington liked playing dances for the effect they had on his band, but I don’t think he cared if they were on bases or elsewhere," Palmquist said. "Sometimes he would play a base two nights in a row, one for the ranks, the next for officers, or vice versa."

The contract for the trio of 1958 Northern California shows was signed by Jerry Perenchio, a young second lieutenant and Air Force pilot. It was among his first forays into promoting and recruiting talent. Later, he joined talent giant MCA and went on to become chairman and CEO of Univision. Perenchio died in 2017.

According to one of Palmquist's sites, "The Duke Where and When," Ellington and his band were paid $750 per show for the three 1958 shows in Northern California, with half upfront and the other half in cash during intermission of the two sets. Palmquist said this figure is lower than some of Ellington's other fees for the era. Two college dates that month that were $1,500 and $2,000, respectively.

"Maybe there were other considerations not shown in the contracts - perhaps free on-base room and board and maybe military transport from base to base, saving the cost of hiring buses and making it more economical to perform for a lower fee, but this is pure speculation on my part," Palmquist said.

While details of those sort may be lost to time, the record of the performance endures. As the show draws to a close, Ellington addresses the crowd near the conclusion of "Oh! Lady Be Good."

"Gentlemen, we certainly want to thank you for the wonderful way you've inspired us this evening," Ellington said. "You're very beautiful, very sweet, very gracious, very generous and we do love you madly. As we say goodnight, we want to give you our best wishes. Hope we'll have this pleasure again some time soon. Thank you. Thank you."