Paul Gonsalves, A Gentle Giant

    by Bruce Crowther


When the popular media tinkers with the specialist world of jazz there is a tendency towards exaggeration of the worst while the best is often overlooked. Non-Jazz writers generally mess up through lack of understanding, oversimplification and several other sins that the press is heir to. The 1956 Newport Jazz festival saw an example of this when Duke Ellington was rediscovered and even made the cover of time magazine. For the most part of the jazz world, as is its wont when faced with such incursions, shrugged its collective shoulders, nodded knowingly and went on enjoying Duke’s music just as it had for the past 30 years. In fact, the attention of the outside world certainly did Duke Ellington no harm at all but that comment cannot be extended to include every member of his band at Newport on that fateful night.


Tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves’ fearsome solo, which bridged the two parts of Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue – 27 choruses of driving, swinging excitement – may have helped confirm dukes comeback and lifted the soloist into the forefront of the jazz world consciousness but Paul was doomed to repeat this triumphant performance over and over at the insistence if audiences and Duke. At best, this was unfortunate because these few minutes of spectacular playing overshadowed other aspects of Paul’s eloquently inventive talent. As a ballad player he had an endless capacity for exquisite lyricism that was in striking contrast with the dramatic Newport performance yet was a perfect reflection of his warm and gentle personality.


Unfortunately even the jazz press has been less than wholly clear-sighted in its view of this unusually gifted musician.


Paul Gonsalves was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 12 July 1920 and although he played guitar for a while, he eventually settled on the tenor. While still a teenager, he reached a standard high enough to merit inclusion in his home town best known black band, led by Sabby Lewis.


After the war, he temporarily rejoined Sabby Lewis, had a spell with Count Basie in 1946 and with Dizzy Gillespie later in the decade, before joining Duke Ellington in 1950.


Like several other would-be Ellingtonian players, Paul could manage a better than fair impression of Ben Webster’s breathy style, and although he quickly developed his own unmistakable voice there was always a pleasing echo of Webster in his playing. With Duke, he gradually gained confidence and stature and developed a lush, elegiac ballad style that soon made references to earlier Ellington sidemen unnecessary.


Joining Ellington was a dream come true for Gonsalves and he dedicated himself to satisfying Duke’s requirements: he blew hot, fast solos on the uptempo flagwavers and he rhapsodised eloquently on a succession of gorgeous ballad performances such as Happy Reunion on the 1958 Ellington presents album, Billy Strayhorn’s Chelsea Bridge, recreations of past Ellington hits like Solitude and warm, intelligent solos on some of Duke’s longer works among which Circle of Fourths from Such Sweet Thunder and Mount Harissa from The Far East Suite are exceptional.


During his long, fragmented tenure with Ellington, Gonsalves became a giant. His playing bore traces of Webster and Hawkins, and, in more reflective moments, displayed what Brian priestly has described as a ‘vocalsied but fragile tone’ reminiscent of Lester Young’s. Yet for all these borrowings, his became a distinctive, striking voice quite unlike those of the three grand masters and hardly ever their inferior.


It is that fragility of tone which is the most distinctive feature of Gonsalves’ playing, lending his work a deeply moving sense of vulnerability. Webster and Hawkins never displayed a vulnerable side; if Lester did it was only in the final, failing months of his life.


Unlike so many established stars, Paul was ceaselessly attuned to new departures in music; Brian Priestly has commented on his flirtation with atonality, which predated that of john Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. But it is in the mainstream of jazz that his best work can be found, and within that mainstream it is the ballads that are most rewarding. He brought to ballads a poetic intensity seldom achieved by his peers.


Paul’s recordings outside the Ellington fold are sometimes damned by faint praise, though it is hard to understand why. On his 1963 album Tell It The Way It Is!  he avoids being upstaged by the commanding playing of pianist Walter Bishop and an on-form Ray Nance. He even finds something new to say on the tenorists’ overworked hymn, Body and Soul, while on the album’s title track, after Bishop has persuasively stamped his personality on it (the tune is his own) and Nance and fellow trumpeter Rolf Ericson have had their say, Gonsalves demonstrates that fast though this company may be he can more than hold his own.


When allowed full rein on ballads, as on Love Calls, his 1967 album of duets with tenor saxophonist Eddie Davis, Gonsalves glides with effortless ease yet never succumbs to blandness, a failing which overtakes so many jazz men when the heat is off. Indeed, on this album both musicians, well known for torrid rabble-rousing playing, demonstrate the futility of pigeon-holing as well its tendency to restrict career development. The stylistic differences between these two fine players give Paul a slight edge which is especially notable on two performances in particular. On If I Ruled The World, Davis takes on the duties of inventive soloist leaving Paul with the unenviable task of playing the melody. But far from sinking beneath Davis’s potentially more dominating sound, Gonsalves captures the attention with a delicate, liquid tone and gentle phrasing. On Don’t Blame Me, Davis lays out, allowing his partner to play one of his favourite tunes and possibly turn in the definitive performance of this dreamy Dorothy Fields-Jimmy McHugh song. His command is sure and his approach relaxed, yet that distinctive frailty remains, adding a touch of pathos to a song that might well have been titled with Paul Gonsalves in mind.


In 1970 Paul again joined forces with Ellingtonian Ray Nance on another splendid album, Just A-Sittin’ And A-Rockin’, which is filled with moments of consummate artistry, many of them on another version of don’t blame me.


The fluid ease of Gonsalves’ playing creates an impression of simplicity, but his life was complicated by external forces and internal weaknesses. And it is here that the real tragedy of Paul Gonsalves lies, for within this quiet, contemplative, delightful man lay the seeds of his self-destruction.


There were those that took advantage of his vulnerability, or at best failed to prevent him falling prey to temptation. Paul drank to excess and in addition to alcohol he became addicted to drugs both soft and hard; it was through these addictions that his career suffered most of its ups and downs.


Most of the musicians who worked with Paul have nothing but praise for him, and all have their favourite stories which are retold with warmth. Trombonist Slide Hyde was in a party visiting Saudi Arabia and on their way back to town after a drink at a US compound they passed a man walking along the road carrying a saxophone. Someone said, ‘that looks like Paul Gonsalves,’ so they turned around and went back and it was Paul. He had missed the bus, was flat broke (his customary condition) and was gamely walking to the next gig. Bill Berry tells a delightful tale of how Paul went missing when the Duke Ellington band bus was due to set out for the next town and after searches high and low, was eventually found in the wardrobe of his hotel room. While trying to hang up his coat after a wild night he had passed out with the coat half on the hanger and half on himself.


For all his offstage problems, Paul Gonsalves retained in his playing those distinctive qualities which led many fellow musicians to rate him in the top handful of truly great tenor saxophonists. His playing always displayed a trait that was too often lacking in his personal life – enormous strength of character. He was a giant of jazz, an engaging and delightful figure, and a warm human being and a genius; and yet for all this, and the wealth of marvelous music he left behind on record, his story must ultimately be seen as a tragedy.