Dinah Washington - vocals; Richie Powell - piano; George Morrow - bass; Max Roach - drums
Dubbed "Queen of the Blues" by Down Beat critic Leonard Feather, Dinah Washington sang with a husky, penetrating tone, clear diction, clipped phrasing and a soulful, emotive style that made her an unparalleled interpreter of ballads. And while she may not have attained the kind of widespread popularity of a Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, she enjoyed regal status among hardcore jazz fans. Dinah appeared at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival on Saturday evening, July 16 backed by a formidable trio of pianist Richie Powell, bassist George Morrow and drummer Max Roach from the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet (the same group that accompanied Washington on her stellar 1954 recording on Emarcy, Dinah Jams).
They open her set with a jaunty, uptempo swinging rendition of "Pennies From Heaven," a Johnny Burke tune popularized during the Great Depression by crooner Bing Crosby. Following a lively piano intro by Powell, the ensemble swings briskly on the back of Morrow's insistently walking basslines and Roach's Papa Jo Jones-influenced beat. And Dinah belts with gusto here. They settle into a more subdued vibe with a lush rendition of the melancholy ballad "I Won't Cry Anymore" from a late 1940s session that Washington recorded for the Mercury label. On a swinging rendition of Sammy Cahn's "Teach Me Tonight," Dinah sings with authority while slipping in some sly phrasing along the way. Their take on the George and Ira Gershwin classic "A Foggy Day" (which Dinah recorded on her 1953 Emarcy album, After Hours with Miss D) is handled with a clever calypso beat by Roach before the ensemble comes out swinging in straight 4/4 time on the second verse.
Next up is the proto rock 'n' roll number "Such a Night," a Lincoln Chase tune written in 1954 and subsequently recorded by the likes of Cab Calloway, Tom Jones , Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Johnny Ray and The Drifters. Dinah, who delivers here with typical verve, would record the tune herself in 1961 (it was issued as a single the following year, eventually reaching the Top Ten on American R&B charts). Dinah then delivers a sensuous take on "Birth of the Blues" before culminating her Newport set with a lush rendition of the Sammy Cahn ballad "If It's the Last Thing I Do."
Following her appearance at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, Washington would have a string of successful recordings through the decade, scoring a massive hit in 1959 with the appealing crossover album What a Diff'rence a Day Makes. And while the lush orchestrations of that offering significantly increased her audience -- particularly on the strength of the title track, which climbed the pop charts that year -- it also alienated her hardcore jazz fan base (a similar fate that befell both Wes Montgomery and George Benson after they took a decidedly commercial path in their respective careers). But on this memorable night in 1955, the "Queen of the Blues" wove her regal spell over the crowd at Newport.