Paul Gonsalves (tenor saxophonist) was born on July 12, 1920 in Brockton, Mass. and passed away on May 15, 1974 in London, England at the age of 53.
Born to Cape Verdean parents, Gonsalves’ first instrument was the guitar, and as a child he was regularly asked to play Cape Verdean folk songs for his family. He grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts and played as a member of the Sabby Lewis Orchestra. His first professional engagement in Boston was with the same group on tenor saxophone, in which he played before and after his military service during World War II. Before joining Duke Ellington’s orchestra in 1950, he had also played with the big bands of Count Basie (1947–1949) and Dizzy Gillespie (1949–1950).
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.
This performance is captured on the album Ellington at Newport. 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 that 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. Gonsalves died in London a few days before Duke Ellington’s death. Mercer Ellington refused to tell Duke of the passing of Gonsalves, fearing the shock might further accelerate his father’s decline. Ellington and Gonsalves, along with trombonist Tyree Glenn, lay side-by-side in the same New York funeral home for a period of time.