Paul Gonsalves

Master Musician 1920 - 1974

Under the influence of Ellington

PAUL GONSALVES tells his own story

Crescendo Magazine, March 1964, p24 - 25

As it was the instrument that was available at home, I started on guitar. My father taught the foundations to my two brothers and myself. During those days we used to have to play to entertain company. It wasn't until I was eleven or twelve or so that my eldest brother, Joe, started bringing home jazz records. The music impressed me very much.

But I didn't start thinking about becoming a jazz musician until I was well into junior high school. I guess most of my training in guitar wasn‘t formal, It was just what I'd picked up from my brother and listening to a lot of Django Reinhardt records. The first few Coleman Hawkins records I heard made me want to play the tenor saxophone. I had always admired Hodges. Benny Carter and quite a few instrumentalists of the day.

Turning point

The real turning point was the first time I ever saw a professional name band. I was about 15 or 16 years old. My brother took me to a theatre on a Saturday night. It happened to be the Jimmy Lunceford orchestra. I'd only heard them on records before then. I never quite got over the experience of seeing and hearing those musicians out on the stage. The saxophones under the lights looked like gold to me.

In the town where I lived - Potucket. Rhode Island - there was a store which had a tenor in the window. A Selmer, I think. On the way to school every day I used to spend at least a half-hour, just gazing in at this instrument, never dreaming that I'd be able to own it one day.

When I did eventually secure this born, I was fortunate that the proprietor of this music store recommended a teacher to my father, who took me to see him. His name was Joseph Pietratelli. He had taught a few years before at the Boston Conservatory. However, his attitude towards jazz was favourable. Not only was he a good teacher. but he took an interest in me and that made all the difference. We used to have a lot of discussions on jazz. At that time there was a radio programme called Saturday Night Swing Session, featuring different jazz artists. We'd listen and then discuss what we'd heard.

Practically everyone else I talked to never took it quite that seriously – or they were against it. I had a lot of confidence in my teacher. And for him to go along with what I wanted to - that made me all the more interested.

While I was studying with him I practised eight hours a day, seven days a week for three years. This was how I acquired enough technique. There are no short cuts.

Having acquired a lot of technique, you want to put it to use in jazz. To play fast with facility. You can‘t play any faster than the ideas pop out of your head. So it means that you accumulate a lot of ideas. You have to store up a sort of a mental library. These things are all related to each other.

As for developing my style, I've tried to absorb all that I liked from other musicians. Hawk was my main influence. then Ben Webster and Don Byas. I was influenced by Ben mainly when I heard the first Ellington records featuring tenor. But it still all reverts back to the Hawkins tradition of playing.

Other influences were Lester Young, Chu Berry even Bud Freeman. And this may sound odd: a lot of trumpet players had an effect on the way I wanted to play. So did Art Tatum.

Classic form

Hawkins stands out, though, because what he did seems to be in a more classic form. He played the instrument in the way that the saxophone should be played, in execution and everything else. What I loved about Lester was his sense of rhythm and dynamics. But it seemed an unorthodox approach to the horn.

One thing I've never quite got over is having Lester mention me as one of his favourites. When a few years have passed and you find men that you've admired saying something favourable about you. naturally you're flattered. Everybody who takes up the profession expects some sort of a reward, but there‘s no greater reward than that. I never expected it to get to that point.

When I have discussions with people and they speak of some younger musicians who are supposed to be influenced by me—that's a great feeling. I never thought about that happening. I guess it makes you want to keep on your toes. I never dreamed I'd be fortunate enough to have worked in both the Ellington and Basie bands. Duke was certainly my idol from the start. as far back as my guitar-playing days. He did something special for jazz. He gave it class.

The few years in Basie's band were a wonderful experience - the freedom and the way that it swung. But you got the feeling with everything that you knew what range it would be in musically.

After being in Ellington‘s band I realise there is a difference in musicianship between the two groups of men. This isn't meant in a derogatory way, but this band is able to do a lot more than Basie’s.

The scope is broader. I think Basie realises himself that he isn't the musician that Duke is.

With the writing of Ellington and his protege, Strayhorn, you've got the greatest in the jazz field. There’s so much music coming in - and it's not just blues. You never know what you're going to be playing. For about a year. I was in the Dizzy Gillespie band. That made me realise the pace at which things are changing. I hate to use the term bebop or modern music, because I think Basie and Ellington are modern bands, too. It was just that a new era started with Gillespie, Parker and Monk. So many strides have been made that a musician, if he is going to stay active, must have an open mind and make some effort to keep up with all these things. As for putting them to use in the organisation that you're with, that's something else.

On the subject of those 26 choruses of mine on "Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue”, we hadn‘t played that number for about four or five years. He just happened to call it one night at Birdland in I951, when Louis Bellson was in the band. The way the tenor solo came in - I had the feeling during the piano modulation that I'd like to take a solo, I took quite a number of choruses on it.

Ellington decided on the spur of the moment that we would open with that when we did our spot at Newport. I guess everything seemed to gel, so he just let me play as long as I wanted to. It wasn't planned. It was a thing that just happened by chance. I never guessed that it would get much attention.

Since that time we've more or less played it every night and it's become something of a frustration. People request it and expect me to do the same thing every time - even to tie point of having some of them ask for it just to see how long I'm going to play, rather than what I'm going to play.

After a few years of that you don't want to play it at all. Also it's gotten to be a thing now that if I've got a tenor solo on any number it has to be a long one. I don't think that's right or fair, either. Maybe some nights you're right mentally, not physically.

Actually. what I really like to play are ballads—beautiful standards like "I Cover The Waterfront”, “Gone with The Wind" and “You Go To My Head". However, since "Diminuendo”, whenever we perform most places I'm elected to play these extended things, so I don't get the chance.


I like to play “Body and Soul”, but I generally hate to get requests for it. When people ask for that on tenor they have in mind the Coleman Hawkins rendition. But his solo on that is a masterpiece. I really don't see anything else that can be played on it. Future hopes? I’ve been under the influence of Ellington ever since I've been in the band. And rightly so, because he's that sort of a leader. Being with art organisation that's practically become an institution, I'm assured of some work during the year.

But if anything ever happened to the band and I were able to remain in one place for a while, I would try to do a little more studying, in order to play better. I feel there‘s quite a bit more that I still have to know in music.

I'd like to study guitar formally. also a couple of other instruments. and to go into theory. Because of changing ideas and increasing competition, a jazz musician has to use his brain and keep trying to improve. It's not only an asset - it’s a necessity.

Anything you do, you come under his influence

Says Paul Gonsalves

Crescendo Magazine, March 1965

As Anything you do - you come under his influence, says Paul Gonsalves.

I would like to remain in jazz, and I have some responsibilities that I've acquired in the past few years that I never expected. I have a family to support. Ellington is that sort of leader that anything you do - you certainly come under his influence.

However, if I ever get an opportunity to have my own group. I have something that I would like to do. I have the feeling that there's quite a bit more that I still have to know in music. I don't know - I just feel that I could play better.

But I would like to be able to do it, and still make a decent living and support my family. I guess everybody would like that. That's really the biggest hope that I have. Because it's getting more competitive every day. Its not an easy field.

I‘m fortunate now that I happen to be with an organisation that's practically become an institution, and I‘m pretty much assured of a certain amount of work during the year. But I think if anything ever happened to the band, and I were able to remain in one place for a while. I would try to do a little more studying. Also. there's a couple of other instruments I would like to study if I had the time. Plus going a little more into the theory of music. I think it‘s needed, because changes are taking place so fast. Ideas are changing all the time.

Most of the other things are more or less material things. This business of being a musician is pretty time absorbing. As I intend to remain in music, I might as well try to do it the best that I can.

If I have an original style, it all stems from a thought - you know, observing different things. That's what we have a brain for - to use it. You have to know where the pitfalls are. A fad or something can come up and everybody will embrace it. You have to be strong enough, if it doesn't conform with your way of thinking, to reject it.