The Trials and Tribulations of Paul Gonsalves
by Mike Hennessey
Given the punishing work and travel schedule of the Duke Ellington orchestra, it is hardly surprising that some of the musicians sought solace and sometimes oblivion at the bar. Duke himself once
A remarked of Bubber Mliley: “He was very temperamental and liked his liquor. He used to get under the piano and go to sleep when he felt like it. In fact, all our horn blower were lushes and I used to have to go around and get them out of bed to see they got to work”.
One of the most dedicated drinkers was saxophonist Paul Gonsalves. He joined the band in l950, replacing Ben Webster, and remained with the Duke for the rest of his career - a total of 24 years. He was tremendously adept at high-speed tenor improvisations but also had a most 'affecting ballad style. Gonsalves was not the greatest time-keeper in the world and he also“ developed a habit of wandering off the bandstand from time to time. Ellington mostly resigned himself to these occasional misdemeanours, but sometimes he got his own back.
Derek Jewell relates the story of a concert in Mexico when Gonsalves got down from the stage, highly unsteadily, to serenade a girl with In A Sentimental Mood. When Gonsalves returned, he was immediately called upon by Duke for a second solo.
Then there was the occasion at the Rainbow Grill, recalled by Edmund Anderson, the New York stockbroker who became a close friend of the Duke, when Gonsalves fell asleep on the bandstand and was awakened by a none-too-gentle slap round the face by Ellington. That was a rare lapse by the Duke who usually inflicted more subtle punishments.
When the Ellington orchestra appeared as at the Royal Festival Hall in February l964, Paul Gonsalves failed to show for the concert and his place was taken at the last minute by Tubby Hayes. As Derek Jewell noted in his book, “The reasons for Gonsalves's absence were never given, but everyone knew he was a big drinker and had, at various periods, of his life taken soft and hard drugs. lt was one of the more shameful aspects of the British scene that, on every visit by the Ellington orchestra during the last l5 years of Duke's life, there were always pushers hanging around the stage doors trying to get hold of Gonsalves even when that noble artist had tried very hard to reject drugs.”
On a lighter note, Gonsalves figures in Jimmy Woode's favourite story from his time with the Ellington band. Once again Paul had dozed off on the stand and he was due to step up to the solo microphone to follow a solo from Cat Anderson. As Anderson came to the end of his chorus, Woode leaned over, nudged Gonsalves in the back and said, “Paul, wake up, you're on!” Gonsalves woke with a start and stumbled towards the front of the stage. The audience was still vigorously applauding Anderson's solo as Gonsalves arrived at the mike. Paul looked up, nodded his thanks for the applause, took a bow and returned to his seat without having played a note. But it was Gonsalves who played a major part in restoring the fortunes of the Duke Ellington orchestra after it had gone through a lean period in the first half of the l950s when it was failing to draw large audiences.
On July 7, l956, the Ellington band was booked to appear at the Newport Jazz Festival. The band played a short opening set with four musicians absent without leave and then, this time with the full complement, had the disagreeable experience of having to play a second set at around midnight when the crowd was beginning to drift away. It was when the band went into Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue that the concert suddenly became alive and people on the verge of heading for the exits stopped in their tracks. This was when Paul Gonsalves stepped into the spotlight and really did take a solo-27 choruses of the blues which sent the audience into delirium and earned the band four encores.
This was a real milestone in the history of the Ellington orchestra and it heralded a remarkable' revival. A Time magazine featured “Jazzman Duke Ellington” on its cover and devoted several pages to a feature on him and, as Ellington himself said, it was a major intersection” in his career. The concert was recorded by Columbia, but Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue did not receive unanimous critical acclaim. Britain's Max Harrison described it as“musical stupidity”.
The Duke himself took a more pragmatic view. Later, whenever he was asked how old he was, he would often say, “That's a dangerous question. I was born in l956 at the Newport Festival. ”