Portrait of Paul
by Pete Welding - Downbeat Magazine, February 1963
For almost seven years, ever since a sweltering July evening at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival when he stepped to the microphone in front of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and bridged the two segments of Ellington's Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue with a boiling, relentlessly driving 27-chorus solo that engendered near-hysteria in the crowd attending the festival, tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves has found himself in virtual bondage to that solo.
His position is that of the creator who has been eclipsed by his creation, and who must serve it for the rest of his days. Everywhere the Ellington band travels Gonsalves is asked to repeat that feat and is expected to play only in the leaping, explosive manner that coursed through the Newport solo, and at considerable length.
“A lot of places we play,” Gonsalves said with a shrug, “I don't think people realize that those things can't be re-created. Some people, in fact, aren't particularly interested in what I'm playing but only how long.”
“After you play the same thing over a period of time,” he drawled, “it gets to be sort of cut and dry.”
The tenor saxophonist was not complaining. He was merely pointing up the absurdity of his position. Though many - including Ellington himself - consider Gonsalves at his creative best on ballads, where he can most fully display his unusual harmonic sense, the general jazz audience tends to regard him in the light of what he deprecatingly refers to as “that Newport thing” and to pigeonhole his playing accordingly. He has been typecast by that solo. Remarkable as it is in many ways, his playing on Diminuendo - bold, audacious, swaggering, raucous, frenzied, and bellicose - is in actuality the antithesis of Gonsalves as a man.
Off the stand, Gonsalves is a gentle, thoughtful man of 42 years, a soft-spoken and articulate a vocational philosopher whose words carry the impression of having been carefully weighed before being aired. Self-effacing and painfully shy, Gonsalves with his bent for reflection has an air of quiet calm, self-containment, and introspection about him that is oddly at variance with the public's image of him as a grandstanding Corybantic tenor. Gonsalves, however, would have no difficulty in reconciling the two images: he would recognize them as two distinct effusions of the same nature, manifestations of the polarity of his personality.
Born in Boston, Mass., on July 12, 1920, Gonsalves was raised in an intensely musical atmosphere. His parents, who had come to the United States from the Cape Verde Islands, were musically inclined and passed their love for music - especially their native Portuguese folk songs and dances - onto their children. Paul's father taught him and his two older brothers to play guitar, and the three boys formed a trio that played at house parties and local festivities in Providence, R.I., where the Gonsalves made their home.
In the trying depression years when Paul was growing up, money was in short supply, and house parties and simple home-concocted amusements took the place of professional, more elaborate entertainments. The Gonsalves boys' trio was popular in the neighborhood and as a result, Paul, for a period, developed a dislike of music - the demands it made on his time interfered too greatly with his love for sports, at which he was quite proﬁcient (while a high school junior he was offered two athletic scholarships, both of which he declined).
Interest in music, however, was re-kindled when he was 16: he heard the Jimmy Lunceford Band at the RKO Theater in Providence, to which his older brother Joseph had taken him one night. The Lunceford band-whose recordings, along with Ellington's, Paul had much admired - made a profound and lasting impression on the teenager.
“Immediately I decided I wanted a saxophone,” Paul recalled. “ull ÒI made up my mind then and there to be a musician.”
He had been attracted to jazz much earlier - through the recordings his brothers brought home. Joseph was a construction worker during the depression; each Saturday he would buy a new record - usually an Ellington or a Lunceford - always a good one.
“Didn't have the money to buy bad ones,” Paul said, “so I grew up hearing the best. The inﬂuence my two brothers had on me had a lot to do with my choice of a career, the way I'm playing, and the point I've reached now.”
Somewhat artistically inclined, even as a youngster, Paul responded to what he calls “the life element” of jazz, its spontaneity and immediacy.
In particular, three artists attracted him: Ellington (“from the ﬁrst time I heard him, when I was nine years old”), Lunceford, and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. “What I liked about their music,” he said, “and, I guess, jazz in general, was the total freedom of expression it represented. You felt they were being themselves, Hawkins and Duke impressed me greatly: their music had dignity and honesty, and I've always admired that.”
“Later on when I decided I wanted to become a musician,” he added parenthetically, “I knew I didn't have the genius of an Ellington. I wanted to play a certain instrument - the tenor saxophone - and the man I selected as my idol had an afﬁnity with what Duke was doing, Coleman Hawkins. The saxophone was considered a pretty base instrument at one time. He gave it dignity, so this was something I could do without feeling that I was demeaning myself in any way.”
Paul's father bought him a tenor saxophone for $50, and Paul began studies with Joseph Piaccatelli, a former teacher at the Boston Conservatory who had settled in Providence. Though stressing the value of a sound academic training, instrumental facility, and, most important, a good tone, the teacher encouraged the student in jazz pursuits, for by now the high school senior had deﬁnitely made up his mind for a career in jazz.
After playing with several local bands, among them Henry McCoy's Jitterbugs and Phil Edmonds' New Bedford orchestra, Gonsalves was inducted into the Army in December 1942, serving until November 1945. A truck driver in the Quartermaster Corps, he was stationed in India for the greater part of the time. For his own amusement he played alto saxophone, borrowing one from the service club on the army base.
Released from the service, Gonsalves took altoist-violinist Ray Perry's place in the excellent Sabby Lewis Band, which operated out of Boston. While with Lewis in Atlantic City, N.J., prior to an important two-week engagement in New York City, Gonsalves got a call to join Count Basie, who wanted him to take the place of Illinois Jacquet in his band. Gonsalves had qualms about leaving the Lewis band, especially since much was dependent on the New York job.
“We had a bond there,” he said, “almost like a family - but they decided that if I was going to be shy or have any inhibitions about leaving them . . . . They decided among themselves - they had a meeting one morning. They came up to me and said, “Paul, we know you had a call from Count Basie - we want you to take the opportunity - so that settled that. I joined Basie in Baltimore.”
Gonsalves was with the Basie organisation for three years, from 1946 to 1949.
“That was the same thing,” he mused, “the whole band was a family - Walter Page, Jo Jones, Jimmy Rushing - and I was like a little orphan. Everybody took care of me. I still think of those three years with special fondness."
His playing was deepening, gaining in richness and breadth.
“I could feel that I was growing,” Gonsalves said of this period. “I was getting to the point in my life when I felt that this was not a merry-go-round anymore. I had to decide if this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
He made up his mind to continue with jazz, and used the time with Basie to excellent advantage.
“I've always had this desire to excel,” he said thoughtfully. “Even as a kid in school I wanted to do the very best I could. I had to make my mark. If you're going to be very weak about it, then I don't think you'll accomplish what it is you want to do. I don't mean that I consider myself a star or anything like that, but just that whatever I've undertaken in my life I've wanted to prove myself an asset. Even if you don't have the natural ability and have to apply yourself to the utmost, I believe that you'll get recognition eventually.”
Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie next bid for the tenorist's services, which surprised Gonsalves, for he had never considered himself a particularly modern player. He welcomed the experience in the Gillespie big band, which included altoists John Coltrane and Jimmy Heath, trombonists Melba Liston and Matthew Gee, pianist John Lewis, and bassist Al McKibbon.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to learn a lot of things I didn't think I could grasp because of the pace," he remembered. “I was there such a short time.” The band folded in the summer of 1950.
Service in the Gillespie band did not entail a change in Paul's approach. “When Dizzy hired me,” the saxophonist explained, “he did so because he wanted me to play the way I had been. He never tried to impose on me any set manner of playing. Moreover, he gave me quite a few things to do in the band, and I got along well with the other guys.”
After the Gillespie stint, Gonsalves lazed around New York City, jamming, having fun, and generally taking it easy. He had saved a little money, and he lived on this until it ran out.
“One night,” he said, “I had only about $7 left, and I had this impulse to go to Birdland - just to go there, like it said in the zodiac - and that's where I met Duke. He said that he had heard about me and had been looking for me and asked if I could come down to his ofﬁce the next day. And that's how I went with Duke.”
“I knew it would happen,” he continued. “A lot of things would happen to me, so I'm more or less resigned to being a fatalist. This was the band that had impressed me the most, and here only a few years later I was joining it. It was clearly predestined, I feel. I like to think that because of the way these events have happened to me. You see, events occur in your life periodically, and if you sense that things are going to happen, if you feel that they are impending, then you have to be realistic about it.”
Gonsalves had no difficulty assimilating himself into the Ellington band. There was that feeling of belonging - right from the start.
“After all,” Gonsalves explained, “I had been listening to the band since I was nine years old and I had an idea, more or less, what would ﬁt the band in relation to the way I wanted to play. I feel every musician should do this. When an audience hears an organization, they are hearing the whole thing, not just an individual. That's what a band is - a collective thing. So if you're going to try to play without paying any attention or relating to what is written behind you or if you're just going to give vent to your feelings, then I think you're making a mistake. That's one of the biggest difficulties in this business: to know when, and to have the capacity, to restrain yourself.”
So Pervasive has been the impact of the Diminuendo performance and so completely has it masked any previous impression of Gonsalves' musicianship, that some in the jazz audience might ﬁnd in Paul's plea for restraint occasion for snide commentary. Yet for six years previous to “that Newport thing,” he proved himself a worthy Ellingtonian, playing the tender ballads most often assigned him as solo vehicles with a warmth and passion that indicated he was a more than passable successor to Ben Webster, who had created the tenor role in the Ellington band.
Despite the specter it gave rise to, the July evening in 1956 is still one of the most signiﬁcant happenings in Gonsalves' life.
“Of course, I have to feel good about the Newport thing,” he said, “because that's exactly what I intended to do. There was a sense of competition there that night, and I Went up to do my best, to play as long as I could play - that's what Duke asked me to do. I went out there with that intent in mind: it was our turn and let's play - nothing more than that. I hadn't played that tune since 1951, when we played it one night at Birdland. That was the first time I'd ever played it, and we didn't play it again until Newport.”
“When you hear a musician performing in conjunction with a group." he had said earlier, “and things are jelling, going right, then you have a situation where that particular instrument - and the whole band - almost seems to come alive. This can happen tonight: it can happen tomorrow night; it can happen a night 20 years from now. But it might not happen either.”
It happened for Paul Gonsalves and the Ellintgon band that one July night at least. And it's happened many nights since.