Although his reputation is often hung upon the mighty gallery-rousing performance he gave at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival with Duke Ellington, tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves was at heart an introspective balladeer. His true legacy is his recorded collection of love songs.
Paul Gonsalves was born on 12 July 1920, in Boston, Massachusetts, which is where he had his first professional engagement. He played tenor saxophone with the Sabby Lewis band for several years, a stretch split by military service during World War Two. In 1946, he left the Lewis band to join Count Basie for almost three years, was briefly with Dizzy Gillespie in 1949, and then joined Duke Ellington in 1950. He was to remain with Ellington for the rest of his life. In common with many other tenor players who aspired to play with Ellington, Gonsalves learned Ben Webster’s famous ‘Cottontail’ solo note for note, but it was not long before his own distinctive style thrust aside imitation.
By the time of his sixth year with Ellington, Gonsalves had experienced the ups and downs of playing with a big band. Gonsalves was building a reputation as a consummate balladeer and also as a crowd-pleaser thanks to Ellington’s choice of him as the soloist to bridge the opening and closing sections of ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue’. He had already done this on some dance dates when Ellington called this number at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. It had been a mixed night; Ellington was irritated by his placing on the bill, the show was a long one and the audience was already drifting homewards, and some of the band had been more than usually tardy in returning to the stand after the interval. Whatever the truth behind the moment, the fact is that Ellington called this number, the band played the opening section, and then Gonsalves stepped forward and began to play. And he played and he played and he played. His
storming, 27-chorus bridge dragged the audience back to its seats. The band had already been playing well and everyone was in marvelous form and enjoying the occasion. Now, stoked by Sam Woodyard’s drumming and the leader’s jabbing chords from the piano, they transcended all that had come before on that night and much of what had transpired in the quarter century of the band’s existence. A legend was born.
The astonishing impact on the audience present that night was imparted to the world, thanks to suddenly focused media attention. This was the start of Ellington’s renaissance and neither he nor Gonsalves ever looked back. The down side was, inevitably perhaps, that the saxophonist was obliged to play extended gallery-pleasing, up-tempo solos every night, a fact which overshadowed his great love for ballads.
Nevertheless, ballad performances there were. Gonsalves’s relaxed and thoughtful approach to tunes displayed a love for melody and an ability to develop long, clean and logical solo lines. His rhapsodic playing on many Ellington performances all testify to his vulnerable, often tender sound. His playing on records made outside the Ellington aegis is usually of a similarly reflective nature. A 1970 album with Ray Nance is a good example, including a marvellous performance of Don’t Blame Me’. Gonsalves surpassed even this on a 1967 album of duets with Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, where he delivers what might well be the definitive instrumental version of this same song.
Although he had a 24-year tenure with the band, it was not uninterrupted. There were occasional absences, caused by drug addiction and alcohol dependence early in life and his career was forever dogged by these twin perils. He was in London, England, when his health broke for the last time. He died there on 15 May 1974. At this time, Duke Ellington was himself close to death and was never told that Paul Gonsalves had gone before him.
Source: James Nadal, All About Jazz