Paul Gonsalves

Master Musician 1920 - 1974

Paul Gonsalves

by Barry McRea

Jazz Journal, Vol. 16, Number 7, July 1963

We are constantly reminded that experience in big bands accelerates a musician’s search for a mature personality in the field of jazz. In this direction Paul Gonsalves has had more opportunity than most because he has worked with the music’s three most exciting orchestras-Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington.

Gonsalves, of Portuguese extraction, was born in Boston, Mass. in 1920. Family music circles were an integral part of his early life. His father was an amateur guitarist and soon set about teaching Paul and his two brothers the rudiments of the instrument. At this stage, Gonsalves showed no interest in a musical career and was studying commercial art at school.

His elder brother introduced him to jazz when he brought home records by the name bands of the period. Gonsalves immediately found these more acceptable than the Dance Macabre and other elevating items thrust upon him at school in the interest of musical appreciation. The second stage of his education was a trip with his brother to see the Jimmy Lunceford Band. After this he began to listen to records with greater interest, especially those by Coleman Hawkins. Gonsalves was taken by the great tenor man’s control and invention and set his heart on owning a tenor saxophone. With the depression around the family ears this was a tall order, but finally $50 was found and the instrument bought, appropriately, in Providence, Rhode Island.

He was not sure of himself, especially as neighbors inferred that he would be better employed augmenting the family income than by staying at home practicing tenor. His teacher, Joseph Piacitelli, re-assured him. Although a classical musician he insisted that jazz was a creative and worthwhile profession and, after assessing the youngster’s enthusiasm, provided extra lessons in his own time. Gonsalves studied with him for three years and is grateful for the thorough grounding he received.

While Gonsalves studied the tenor he did freelance work in various small night-clubs, in most cases on guitar. he played Hillbilly and Hawaiian music, and even worked in a polish cafe. His first serious employment came in 1938 when he went to New Bedford, Mass. Here he worked with Phil Edmond, Duke Oliver and Henry McCoy. The war interrupted his career and he was drafted into the army in 1942. While in India he received a letter from one of his old friends in Edmund’s band telling him that Duke Ellington had offered him a job. Apparently Ellington had heard him while passing through Boston and had made a mental note of the young tenor.

Of course, nothing could be done about it at the time, and on discharge Gonsalves joined Sabby Lewis. The band was playing the summer season of 1946 in Atlantic City when Illinois Jacquet suddenly left Count Basie. The Kansas City leader immediately telephoned Gonsalves and offered him the job. His colleagues in the Lewis band urged him to accept and he began a four year stay with the Count in September of that year.

He was making better money than ever before and, thanks to Basie’s love of tenor playing, was given plenty of room to stretch out musically. His style still reflected Hawkins strongly, but traces of Ben Webster’s method were discernible on up-tempo numbers. His breathy work on South (1947) is a typical example and shows that he belongs firmly in the rhythmic tradition of the 30’s. The Basie orchestra was still a great band for the blues and Gonsalves fitted perfectly.

The move that most affected his musical style came in 1949 when he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band. The stay lasted barely one year but brought him into immediate contact with the bop men. At this time he was extremely conscious of the dangers that threatened this introverted school. Too many young men were blindly apeing Gillespie, Parker, and Powell, and as a result the movement appeared to be turning in on itself. He admired its leading figures and certainly felt that the Gillespie band was a step ahead of him at this stage. But because of the reservations he had, their influence on him was of a more long range value. He fitted into this big band because, unlike the bop combo, the orchestrations required a more traditional approach.

Gonsalves preferred his own devices to a complete metamorphosis in his rhythmic concept. He would rather borrow the outstanding feature of a particular artist then plagiarise someone entirely. He was not concerned if that player was not a tenor saxophonist-he looked to Art Tatum for the flashing arpeggio and Louis Armstrong for the attack of phrase.

When Dizzy Gillespie was forced to disband, Gonsalves remembered the interest shown by Duke Ellington back in his service days. He introduced himself to Duke in Birdland one night and was offered a try-out the next day. He was conversant with all of Ben Webster’s work for he was very taken with his tone and attack. When asked to play Webster’s role in Mainstem at rehearsal the next day he was delighted. So was the Duke and he was hired on the spot.

Since that day in 1950 he has remained with the Duke, except for a brief period with Tommy Dorsey in 1953. During this period he has blossomed into one of the group’s most authoritative saxophone voices. His earliest recordings with the band show only slight deviation from his Basie days. His original The Happening (1951) is basically straight swing style but the way in which he uses riffs gives a hint of his more advanced rhythmic approach still to materialise. One O’Clock Jump (1954) gives a clear picture of the way he was moving. This Buck Clayton arrangement features first the Lester Young-type tenor of Jimmy Hamilton. The Gonsalves solo that follows is the complete antithesis. The freedom from bar line restrictions and hard edge that his leathery tone assumes, illustrate the extent to which he was thinking along modern lines.

His playing continued to mature. the pulse of the rhythm section was no longer used as a base but rather as a guide to punctuate his inventive flights. The was perfectly illustrated with his incredible performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. With Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blues Gonsalves transformed a routine concert into a milestone in jazz history.

George Avakian rather self-consciously excuses that dancing that occurred by suggesting that the people involved were not displaying a “rock-’n’-roll reaction.” This is pompous nonsense that ignores the wonderful excitement that jazz possesses and Gonsalves generated on this hot summer night. He builds his solo through twenty-seven choruses, starting with straight-forward tenor with a socking after-beat and then embarking on a headlong surge that examines every rhythmic possibility of the number. His intense tone cuts through above the band, the crowd and everything else. Perhaps other versions since this concert have been contrived but this was the real thing.>

Gonsalves had experimented with Diminuendo back in 1951 at Birdland and had received enthusiastic audience response. The Newport performance earned him a label that he wears uneasily. Since this date he has had little opportunity to work with slow blues or ballads. Ellington writes most saxophone scores of this type for Johnny Hodges leaving the luckless tenor with most of the up-tempo tunes. This is a great pity for, as he proved on Warm Valley(1953) or his first chorus on Overture of the Nutcracker Suite (1960), he works brilliantly with this type of material. Rather like the musical schizophrenia shown by Benny Golson in his solo work, Gonsalves at this stage shows two faces. Whereas his faster solos enjoy considerable freedom, his slower material remains firmly in the swing era with a wide vibrato and relaxed phrasing.

In most of Duke Ellington’s new albums, however, it is the fierce swingers that are alloted to the indefatigable Gonsalves. Circle of Fourths (1957) which completes Such Sweet Thunder is a fitting climax with the full band helping to shape a great solo, while the new Copout Extensions (Concert version 1963) is in the same class.

Another feature of this remarkable musician’s style is his shapely codas. These are usually unaccompanied and bear a real resemblance in spirit to the melody that they terminate. He frequently takes them at half tempo and manages to convey a feeling that he has further valid comment to make on the theme in hand. There are excellent example onThe Happening (1951), ‘A’ Train (1952) or Blow by Blow (1962).

Paul Gonsalves is very aware of his own position in jazz and has a great regard for Duke Ellington. He sometimes feels, however, that the opportunity to lead a medium sized band would be of considerable benefit to him. He enjoys most forms of music and is glad to have been associated with Ellington’s highly successful Nutcracker Suite. This is not surprising for he plays superbly on this album. I have mentioned the overture but he is well featured on other tracks. Peanut Brittle Brigade (1960) has some of Duke’s most spectacular scoring and Gonsalves re-asserts the power of the soloist in the big band with a wailing solo and masculine coda. Sugar Rum Cherry (1960) on the other hand is an excellent tenor exploration at slow tempo. It indicates that perhaps his slower work is now moving away from the rhythmic restrictions that it had previously shown.

Paul Gonsalves is today is a mature jazz-man. He has listened to most of the spectacular innovators and borrowed only such effects as can be integrated into his style. The rhythmic liberties that he takes belong to the John Coltrane brand of modernism. He has a great admiration for Coltrane but, harmonically, he remains the musician who first sought his fortune in New Bedford. the synthesis of these unlikely extremes gives Duke Ellington a tenor soloist who is nearer in spirit to the original Ellington ferocity than anybody in the current band.