Paul Gonsalves on the Road
A play in one act by Arthur Luby
Characters (in order of appearance):
By: Arthur Luby
Copyright: July 2018
The scene opens on an empty microphone. Immediately after an allusion on piano to “In a Sentimental Mood” Paul Gonsalves steps forward holding his tenor saxophone. He is in concert clothes, but without a tie and the top button of his shirt is open. He is also staggering drunk and is maintaining appropriate posture only with the greatest of difficulty. The voice of an unseen Duke Ellington can be heard after several beats.
Ellington: Ladies and gentlemen, you may notice that Paul Gonsalves is without his tie this evening. You see, while it is my privilege to be present for Duke Ellington week at the University here in Madison Wisconsin, Paul also has friends in this lovely city, and they have obviously celebrated a Paul Gonsalves night upon our arrival. And ladies and gentlemen, I suspect that at the conclusion of an appropriately liquid reunion with his friends, Paul provided them with an article of his clothing as a keepsake, if you will. Hence, the non- tie. (Paul smirks and shifts his eyebrows at the inside joke) But Paul wants you to know that even sans tie, he too loves all of you madly. And to show his affection, I will now call upon him to take his position as our strolling violinist and ask all of you to imagine that you are at one of the great restaurants of the world and that Paul’s saxophone is actually a violin as he descends from the stage to play, of course, “In a Sentimental Mood.”
Ellington strikes the opening chords to “In a Sentimental Mood”. Paul wipes his brow with a handkerchief and, as called for in the routine, plays while strolling across the front of the stage. The playing is, at first, weak, but as Paul continues his “stroll”, his playing gains force and the lines of the melody can be made out. Unfortunately, as he makes his way to the stairs leading to the audience he loses his balance and ends up spread eagled on the stage, somehow avoiding damage to his saxophone.
The orchestra falls silent while Mercer Ellington crosses the stage to help Paul to his feet. As Ellington signals the bassist and drummer to resume the beat, Paul resumes playing. Unfortunately, he blows the opening bars to “Avalon”, not “In a Sentimental Mood”, and Ellington signals the orchestra to stop.
Ellington: Ladies and gentleman, you will have to indulge us for a few minutes. It appears that our reed section is in need of repair…
Ellington waves the orchestra off stage and then stands and exits leaving Paul alone.
The stage is dimmed, but the profiles of Gonsalves sitting in a folding chair head down and holding his saxophone along with those of Duke and Mercer Ellington are visible.
Ellington: I just won’t have this anymore. A beautiful setting with a full house…ruined. This should have been a great evening for our orchestra and instead it was an embarrassment…because of you.
Ellington: Don’t interrupt me. How many times am I going to have to go through this? When am I going to be able to go on the road without worrying about whether someone is going to find you in a hotel closet hung up with your clothes...when can we put on a performance without me having to look over to check if you’ve fallen out of your chair?
Mercer: It’s a disease Pop.
Ellington: And I sent him to a hospital for rehabilitation, Mercer. I paid for it.
Paul: Aw Duke, the worst thing you ever did to me was cooping me up in that hospital. They wouldn’t even let me play my saxophone.
Mercer: They were trying to help you, Paul. Did you talk to them?
Paul: About what?
Mercer: About your problems...your issues.
Paul: What issues?
Ellington and Mercer look at one another and Mercer shakes his head.
Ellington: I don’t know why I bothered.
Paul: What was there to talk about, Duke? None of them knew the music. ...every time I got done talking to one of those doctors all I could think was “I need a drink”.
Ellington: What you need is a tie… You know what bothers me most… it’s not you, because I refuse to worry about you anymore. What bothers me is that there were young musicians in the audience, hoping to be inspired. (To Mercer) Their memory of this evening won’t be of our music, it will be his foolishness.
Mercer: They’ll remember the “Happy Go Lucky Local” solo after you called that break.
Ellington: It was sloppy…when it comes to long solos he’s working from reputation, not playing…No, what they’ll remember is that he almost fell into the audience…and then got up and played… what was it … “Annie Laurie
Mercer: It was “Avalon”.
Ellington: “Avalon”, “Annie Laurie” ... Those are Lunceford numbers. They’re not in our book…Why are you defending him?
Mercer: Because sloppy or not, he plays a ballad better than anyone else in this band. He’s still a star. He has been since Newport…we’ve lost a lot of men and we don’t have many stars left.
Ellington: Reflects for a beat and then shakes his head No, No... people have been holding Newport over my head for sixteen years. It’s 1972 and I’ve been on the road for fifty years. I don’t care about Newport anymore. I will not have this. Go on home, Paul. I will not let you embarrass my orchestra…To Mercer Get on the phone and find me someone else for tomorrow night.
Ellington starts to leave, but then turns around. He looks down at Paul and, still utterly exasperated, hits him on top of the head and walks off.
Paul: Rubbing head for a beat before speaking Wow Duke ...you play rough
Mercer: Waits a beat You all right?
Paul: Still rubbing head He hit me on the head.
Mercer: Yes, he did.
Paul: Did he fire me?
Mercer: You’re a little slow on the uptake this evening, my man…If we can’t depend on you to be in your seat when Duke hits the downbeat or get up and play when he calls for you, then we can’t use you… and I don’t believe I can save you this time.
Paul: Lifts saxophone and shakes head From the day I first saw someone blow on this instrument, I thought playing it for a living was the best thing anyone could ever do… it’s the only thing I ever wanted to do…so I come here to blow something beautiful and end up getting hit on the head.
Mercer: Sighs It’s been an ugly evening.
Paul: I better get myself together…I’m supposed to speak to those college kids tomorrow.
Mercer: I don’t think you need to worry about that, Paul. You don’t play for the band anymore.
Paul: Then who do I play for?
Mercer has no answer. Paul stands and begins to walk away.
Mercer: Where are you going?
Paul: For a walk.
Mercer: You don’t need to be walking anywhere except back to the hotel until I can figure out what I’m going to do with you.
Paul: I don’t feel like sitting alone in my room…My saxophone and I are going to take another stroll.
Paul resumes playing “Avalon” with his right hand while holding a bottle of liquor in his left. He staggers while trying to “stroll” and collapses on to a bench that has been placed on the stage behind him during the scene transition. He stops playing and shakes his head.
Paul: To himself No-one else in this band has to walk and play at the same time… Looks up You try doing that sometime, Duke, and see if you can stay with the melody and never trip or mess up… Stands and plays the opening notes of “Avalon” in a simple beginner’s way. An older man wearing a pre- war style suit and tie enters
Shop Owner: Hey you…you can’t play that horn unless you ask me first.
Paul: Standing It was just sitting there on a stand in the window.
Shop Owner: You think anyone is going to buy that instrument when your spit has been all over the mouthpiece?
Paul: Hesitates How much does it cost?
Shop Owner: Taking the saxophone from him Fifty nine dollars
Paul: That’s a lot of money.
Shop Owner: Not for a saxophone. You’ll never find a better price.
Paul: I know, but I don’t have that kind of money.
Shop Owner: No, I expect you’ve never seen fifty dollars…Do you know how to play it?
Paul: Just what they taught me in band class. I play the ones the school lets me try.
Shop Owner: Can you read music?
Paul: Yes sir. My father taught me on guitar. That’s the only instrument we have in our house… Do you know how to play this?
Shop Owner: Yes I do. This is my saxophone, at least until I sell it… There’s people who look down on the saxophone, but to me it’s the king of all the horns.
Paul: If I had that horn, there’s no way I’d ever let it go.
Shop Owner: Is that so? Well, let me tell you, young man…blowing into it and making a living with it are two different things.
Paul: Do you play it for people?
Shop Owner: I used to. I surely did. I worked with a little society band over in New Bedford, playing weddings and dances and such. I sang too… romantic songs, you know… because that’s what people at weddings and country clubs like Looks up as if trying to remember the words to a song... “I found my love in Avalon…across the bay…I left my love in Avalon, and sailed away…”
Paul: Interrupting I know that song. That’s what I was trying to play.
Shop Owner: Everyone knows that song. Jolson sang it.
Paul: My brother and I went to hear Lunceford at the Rhodes Ballroom. They opened a curtain… and there was his orchestra with the spotlight on Willie Smith, and he blew that number, but he did it different than how you were singing it.
Shop Owner: How’d he do it?
He hands the saxophone to Paul. Paul plays several scales.
Shop Owner: I’m not hearing a melody, young man.
Paul: I know that. I’m just warming up.
Paul then begins to play the same opening chorus to “Avalon” as the man, but at an edgier up tempo pace. After the first chorus he attempts several chord changes, but then loses his way and can’t come back to the melody. He stops.
Shop Owner: You got a little ahead of yourself, son.
Paul: I was trying to do it like Willie did... There was a spot where Lunceford let him loose and he just took off …He was flying over everyone in the band ... That’s how I want to play.
Shop Owner: Not many men can play like that… I can’t. It’s not hard to take off… you have to know how to land…Are you really interested in this horn?
Paul: Oh yeah.
Shop Owner: Well, maybe if you bring your mother or father around we can talk about how to pay for it. Why don’t you try that number again, just slower. And stay in the same key.
Paul plays the first chorus of “Avalon” again, this time more carefully and in the same tempo as the man sang. The playing is clean and hard.
Shop Owner: Well now… we may have a player here. Begins to sing as Paul resumes playing “I dream of her in Avalon…from dusk till dawn…So I think I’ll travel on…to Avalon”
The Shop owner walks away and Paul sits back down on the bench and continues to play for several choruses. An older man enters the stage and approaches Paul. Paul looks up at him.
Giuseppe: Slight Italian accent What are you doing to Senor Puccini’s aria?…More jazz…and on the saxophone. I teach you clarinet along with the saxophone for a reason. You have to be able to play both… You know, Mr Goodman played that song on clarinet, and with great skill.
Paul: I heard him. It was good…holds up saxophone it was good, but it doesn’t cut as deep as when it’s played on this…
Giuseppe: On the bastarda instrument.
Paul: Holding horn Giuseppe, you’ve been teaching me how to play the saxophone for three years and now you tell me it’s a bad instrument.
Giuseppe: Not bad, “bastarda”. The saxophone is only fifty years old. The great symphonies were written before it was invented, so it has no place in the music… It has a reed and a keying system, so I can teach it, but the reed section of a symphony can go a full season before anyone has to play a saxophone. The clarinet is played every night. With that instrument you always have a place. And in a symphony you always have a home and somewhere to work.
Paul: All jazz orchestras have saxophone sections. The saxophone is played every night on every number.
Giuseppe: Jazz music is road music…there is no home…I understand that much about it. And life on the road is very difficult and lonely. I learned that when I first came to this country, before it became home…You know, I admire Mr Ellington… I think he is a great musician. And I’ve even learned to follow your Mr Hawkins and your Mr Webster, but the solos are like journeys down a long dark lane. I follow every step, but I don’t know where I’m being led.
Paul: But, that’s how I want to play.
Giuseppe: Paul, you are my most talented student…I taught you how to breathe, how to finger, and all the technique you need. I can even transcribe the solos you like, but I can’t teach you the phrasing for your music. It can be beautiful, because music when it’s played by people with talent is a beautiful thing. But, the phrasing comes from the street…it comes from a life I never led…from territory I don’t know.
Paul: I know the territory and I’ll take care of the phrasing…There’s one more solo from a record I want you to help me with…
Giuseppe: Put it on the Victrola. I’ll write it down for you.
The sound of Ellington’s piano riff from “Sepia Panorama” is heard and Giuseppe leaves. Paul begins playing an uncertain riff based on Ben Webster’s solo on the number, but as he moves through the changes the playing becomes more assured and intense. A younger Duke Ellington appears.
Ellington: I’ll be damned if they weren’t right…you sound just like Ben.
Paul: I know all his parts.
Ellington: Now, how did you manage that?
Paul: I listened to your records, Duke…and I talked my teacher into writing down Webster’s solos for me… I’ve been playing them for years.
Ellington: Well sweetie, if you’ve gone to all that trouble I think you need to come down to my office tomorrow morning and sign a contract. We’ve been looking for someone like you.
Paul: Embarrassed That’s great, Duke…Duke, do you think you can give me a little advance. I barely have enough for a cab to get back to my apartment.
Ellington: Has seen it before Well, Paul, we don’t normally pay musicians until they play for us…but peels off several bills here’s fifty. If you show up on time tomorrow and start playing for us I’ll treat it as a bonus.
Paul: Thanks, Duke…What time?
Ellington: Let’s make it eleven. I’ll write down the address.
Paul: I know where your office is, Duke. It’s up in Harlem. I can walk there from where I live…don’t even have to bother with the “A” train.
Paul resumes playing the Webster solo while Duke nods approval. Ellington disappears and Paul sits back down on the bench, realizing where he is. He puts his saxophone down and sips from his bottle and leans his head back. The scene darkens and the lights come up when a voice is heard.
Student: Hey man, are you alright?
A college student wearing a hooded sweatshirt approaches Paul
Paul: Had dozed off. I’m fine.
Student: It’s after two…you shouldn’t lay around here. The police think anyone out after one o’clock is peddling grass.
Paul: Not me. That reefer is dangerous.
Student: Hey….you’re one of the musicians…you’re Paul Gonsalves. We talked about you in class last week. Geoffrey…our Professor… played the Newport album. Kind of warm up for this week…Man, what I would give to be part of a performance like the one on that album. Just one big number like that and your life is made.
Gonsalves smiles and shakes his head
Paul: Life doesn’t work that way…Did you go to the concert tonight?
Student: No. It sold out. They didn’t reserve tickets for students. Kind of unfair if you ask me.
Paul: Just as well. It wasn’t one of my better nights. Do you play?
Student: I’m studying percussion…and I play for a little rhythm and blues band. We try to do jazz when we can, but people don’t call for it. The customers don’t think its dance music.
Paul: That used to be what it was for. You know, I have a son doing the same thing as you. He’s a drummer in a little funk band in Detroit
Student: We can do funk. You have to be able to do everything to get paying gigs…It’s not easy making a living in music.
Paul: Never has been.
Student: Is your son a player?
Paul: Reflects for a beat and then with assurance Yes his is… Saw him at work for the first time a few months ago. He’s good… better than he thinks he is.
Student: It’s late. I’ve got class in the morning…you need a place to crash?
Paul: No, I’ve already crashed once tonight…I got a room at the hotel down the street.
Student: Blowing into hands It’s getting cool out here. You ought to get inside.
Paul: I’ll be along.
Paul plays several bars of “Chelsea Bridge”, the scene dissolves, and the lights come up on a young man sitting on a wooden bench on the other side of the stage. He is agitated and takes out two drumsticks and pounds out a funk type beat on the bench, but loses interest in it and starts a rhythm in swing time. Paul crosses the stage to sit next to him.
Renell: What are you doing here?
Paul: You beat out an interesting rhythm tonight.
Renell: The beat’s simple. Just funk… ba bump ba bump. People like it that way. But, sometimes I try to add little accents with the cymbals or the snare to see if someone looks up.
Paul: I heard it. You always liked trying different rhythms and using all the equipment. When you were little I brought you to the Blue Note back in Chicago and Sam Woodyard showed you how to work up a ride pattern and get the right kind of sizzle on the cymbals. He said you were a natural.
Renell: I don’t remember that.
Paul: I do. We all got a kick out of it.
Renell: You’ve changed. You don’t look like the pictures on the albums anymore. And you haven’t said my name. Do you even remember my name?
Paul: Yes I do, Renell. I gave you that name.
Renell: Mama says she gave it to me.
Paul: Maybe that’s how it was. It’s a good name.
Renell looks over at his father for a beat
Renell: How did you find me?
Paul: I wasn’t trying to hunt you down.
Renell: I don’t doubt that.
Paul: Mercer saw an advertisement for your group just after we got into Detroit. I’ve come by here the last three nights after we got done. We’re just a couple of blocks away.
Renell: I know….over at the Michigan Theatre.
Paul: Did you come see us?
Renell: Ten dollar cover and a minimum of two drinks. That’s heavy for me, man.
Paul: You should’ve called me. I could’ve taken care of that.
Renell: Where was I supposed to find you?
Paul: Sighs and nods What are you doing in Detroit? You should be in New York. That’s where a musician makes his name.
Renell: A jazz musician. I don’t play jazz. This is an easier city to break into. I grew up here. People know me.
Paul: I heard your mother was in New York.
Renell: That’s where a dancer makes her name. She moved there after I went to college.
Paul: You went to college?
Renell: Down in Tennessee…on a band scholarship.
Paul: You know, I once had a chance to go to college.
Renell: Is that so?
Paul: To the Rhode Island School of Design. But, then I got an offer to play with Phil Edmonds’ orchestra… Did you graduate?
Renell: Yes I did.
Paul: Winces That’s a wonderful thing...
Renell: You didn't hear about that?
Paul: Embarrassed How was I supposed to know?
Renell: By writing or calling…like most people do. But, we ain’t like most people… not you and me.
Paul: I wrote you.
Renell: Yeah…I got a postcard from Bagdad in 1959 and another from London in 1965. And the handwriting wasn’t the same. It’s only 1972, so you’ve got seven years to send me another note. That way I’ll have a letter from you every decade I’ve been alive.
Paul: You know Baghdad was an incredible city. We never played to anything less than a sellout and every audience called for me to solo... Duke said it was because there’s an air of the orient to my playing… And there’s no place like London. You come in out of gray, wet weather, and the colors and warmth in the hall explode in your face as soon as you walk on stage… and it makes you want to blow for all you’re worth …I hope you get the chance to play in London someday.
Renell: Sighs and shakes head It’s all Duke and the orchestra….there’s nothing else, is there? Not me, not mama… not your other kids or your other wives.
Paul: I only got married once.
Renell: Then “wife”.
Paul: Moves closer to Renell There is nothing else when I’m performing…because you have to live the music. It can’t be any other way. But, when I’m off stage and on the road it feels like there’s just nothing…nothing except miles of pavement and one airport after another. And when you have to deal with that kind of nothing the demons come out of the walls at night.
Renell: I don’t want that kind of nothing…and I won’t be putting people on this earth until I’m sure that there’s something…something in life that’s as important as the music.
Paul: I thought that was one of the good things I did….putting you on this earth.
Renell: Leans head back against the wall and stares forward, avoiding eye contact with Paul Well, from what Mama told me, I wasn’t part of any plan and I certainly wasn’t in your plans. You know, it would have been easy for her to have told me you were dead. She could have said your real father is no longer with us and that’s why you can’t see him. But, she thought it would help me to know who you were. So she bought the album with your big solo and the pictures on the back. I listened until I knew each note and could pound out the beat all the way through to the end. After a while I could imagine I was Sam Woodyard laying down the beat on the double bass drums. I never got any closer to you than that.
Paul: You said you didn’t remember Sam.
Renell: I remember him... Is he still with you guys?
Paul: No. He just upped and left one day. He couldn’t take the road anymore…just got frustrated with everything. Music can be frustrating.
Renell: I know that. I spend most of my waking hours scuffling for gigs. It’s a hell of a way to make a living.
Paul: That’s not what I mean… What I mean is that you never play the way you should, or sound the way you want. People always talk about the number Sam and I did at Newport, but we could have made it into something more…instead it became a routine that we had to do night after night, like bringing in a trained seal or an acrobat. And there’s hundreds of solos where I was thinking “I’m there”, that I’ve found something special that no-one else can ever do…and then it fades away and I can’t get it back no matter how hard I try to chase it down. That’s an empty feeling… But, you’re not playing jazz if you’re not trying to make your solos different each time out.
Renell: I don’t play like that. I lay down a good beat, same thing all the time. And people drink and dance to it. They don’t want to have to think about the music.
Paul: That’s not what I heard. Each night I was here you tried something different. Afro/Cuban, bossa, bop. Your players couldn’t handle it and you had to go back, but I heard it. You’re a player.
Looks directly at his father
Renell: Mama said that once you signed on with Duke you never came to stay with us.
Paul: I used to come see you two whenever the band was in Chicago. Then, one night I came to your apartment and no-one was there. One of the neighbors told me you had moved away...
Renell: You going to come again tomorrow night?
Paul: Tonight’s our last night.
Renell: Where you going?
Paul: New England…Boston…then Providence.
Renell: That’s home.
Paul: That hasn’t been home for a long time.
They stare at one another for several seconds
Renell: There was a tune you did that I used to practice brush sticks to. Nice and slow.
Paul: I play a lot of numbers like that. I can’t do the fast ones the way I used to.
Renell: I can’t remember the name.
Paul: Silent for a beat I’d like to know how things go with your playing.
Renell: Well, if you think of it, send me a note sometime and I’ll get back to you…
Paul: Where can I find you?
Renell: Where can I find you?
Renell stands and disappears and Paul returns to his bench by the lake. He plays a bar of “Happy Reunion”
Duke Ellington steps into a spotlight.
Ellington: Ladies and gentleman, after a long journey through the Midwest, one of the very great pleasures of returning to the Ocean State this evening is that I also have the privilege of bringing Paul Gonsalves home to his family. And in celebration of this occasion and the presence of Paul’s lovely sister we will call on him to play “Happy Reunion”.
Paul replaces Ellington in the spotlight and then delivers the first choruses of “Happy Reunion” before the scene fades and the lights come up on a bandstand with two chairs behind it. There is a glass of whisky on the floor in front of one of the chairs. Paul walks out on to the stage carrying his saxophone in one hand and a pad of paper and pen in the other. He sits behind the bandstand, puts his instrument and writing material on one chair, sits on the other, and sips his whisky.
Loud voice from Offstage: Paul Gonsalves…Paul Gonsalves. We’ve been waiting on you for half an hour. It’s cold out, brother. Time to get fortified.
Paul: Drunk, responding with difficulty I’ll be with you in a bit, man.
Different Voice: Don’t keep us waiting, man. The night is young and we’ve got a head start on you.
Mercer walks on to the stage carrying a trumpet.
Mercer: Let him be, he’s busy.
First Voice: Who are you?
Mercer: Don’t you worry about who I am…to Paul You ain’t got time for those people. The bus is going to leave and you need to get your ass on it…What about that letter you wanted me to help you with? Paul lifts a piece of stationary Let’s work on it on the bus. You need get out of here…those are some evil looking men and nothing good is going is to come from going out on the town with them.
Paul: Those are guys I grew up with… and they came all the way from Pawtucket. From the other side of the tracks. We’re on the good side of town.
Mercer: It didn’t look very good when we drove through it. Frame houses, warehouses, and bad weather. Reminded me of Manchester or Liverpool. But, I must say this is a lovely hall.
Paul: This is “Rhodes on the Pawtuxet” and this place is class, even now.
Mercer: It’s been a long time since we’ve played in an old fashioned ballroom like this. We used to play classy places like this all the time, but now they’re gone. These days it’s nightclubs and auditoriums.
Paul: The very first big time jazz concert I ever saw was right here.
Mercer: Tell me about it on the bus.
Paul: Why aren’t you worrying the rest of the band about getting on the bus, Mercer?
Mercer: Because I know they’ll all be on it when we leave.
Paul: This is the exact place where I decided I wanted to play jazz saxophone…Lunceford’s band played here when I was a kid and my brother and I had to wait a whole hour to get through the doors. But, just as we made it in they opened the curtains, and there he was…
Paul: Willie Smith…playing the shiniest gold horn you’d ever want to see and moving up and down the scales so easy that it didn’t look like he had to breathe… changing keys whenever he felt like it, and out blowing the rest of the band. And the people started dancing and got so excited that they damn near pulled him off the stage. By the time he finished, I couldn’t tell where the band ended and the audience began.
Mercer: Willie was with us for a time… remember? Of course, he wasn’t the same man when he signed on with us. Playing for Duke has to be a life’s calling. By the time Willie came to us we were just another gig.
Paul: Not so... He was one of the greatest musicians ever to blow through a reed and he put his heart into the music. But he was sitting in Johnny Hodges’ chair and we all treated him like he was there to keep it warm.
Mercer: Well, I would have loved to have seen Willie when you did, playing for dancers. We don’t see dancers anymore. These days we get intellectual audiences. Shakes head What an embarrassing house. Seemed to me that there were only half a dozen folks at the bar and twelve in the seats.
Paul: These days, we get small audiences… Small audiences with high IQs.
Mercer: Yeah, I see those two scholars waiting on you...Look, there’s no point hanging around here. I’ll sit with you on the bus and help you get your letter done
Paul: I don’t know what to write…I’m having trouble, Mercer. I can barely see the words on paper or the notes on the arrangements. It’s getting to where I get dizzy and lose sight when I stare at something too long, like the way you lose sight of the stars when the sun is coming up.
Mercer: You’ve stayed up to see the sun rise too many times, Paul. You’re wearing down. I think you need to get off the road for a while.
Paul: Get off the road and do what? Sit around Queens until my money runs out?
First Voice: Paul…
Mercer: Looks over at Paul’s “friends” We need to get out of here. Let’s get on the bus. We’ll relax and work on your letter. You tell me what you want to say and I’ll write it down.
Different Voice: C’mon man. What are you doing…the concert’s over.
Mercer: Leave him be…he’s got family business.
First Voice: We’re family.
Mercer: The hell you are. Looks at Paul I don’t care what you say… those aren’t friends. They’re just some nasty people who want to hang around you. If we had a gig at the North Pole I’ll be damned if there wouldn’t be elves waiting to take you out on the town and leave you laying there in the snow after the damage is done…
Paul: Those are old friends, Mercer. They don’t mean me any harm
Mercer: I don’t know what they mean, just what they’ll do…Let’s get at this. Picks up pad and pencil What do you want me to write?
Paul: We can do it later…I need to catch up with my friends.
Mercer: You need to catch up with your son.
Paul: Sighs and nods OK… Dear Renell
“Here’s my first letter to you this decade. Your aunt came to the show tonight and gave me your address along with your latest notices. I saw where the writer liked the drums and that made me happy.”
Mercer: Why didn’t you teach him the saxophone?
Paul: Sips drink Well, the truth is, Mercer, I didn’t teach him a damn thing…But, there’s nothing wrong with being a drummer. Livens up I totally respect good percussion. I’ve never played a solo I was happy with when I didn’t have a good rhythm section. Paul reflects for a beat and signals for Mercer to start again “We’re in New England now. Dark and rainy, same as in England, but no excitement or warmth the way there is in Europe, and I hardly know anyone or maybe I just can’t remember. (Mercer stops writing) I hope things get better when we get to New York, but these days it feels like we’re on the road to nowhere.”
Mercer: Why would you want to write him something like that?
Paul: What should I write?
Mercer: Tell him that you played “Happy Reunion” tonight, and even after all the times Duke has done that number with you, I saw him step away from the piano so he could listen. Tell him that thirteen people came in out of the rain on a bad night and were moved by your playing…Tell him about the music.
Paul: Renell doesn’t like it when I go on about the music.
Mercer: You’re both musicians…what else is there to write about?
Paul: Reflects for a beat Alright, let me try it different. You ready?
Mercer nods and picks up the pad. Paul remains sitting and resumes recitation
“We’re in Rhode Island now. Only a small audience tonight, but your Aunt Julia was here so Duke had me play ‘Happy Reunion’, and I remembered that it was the song you were thinking of when I saw you last month.”
First Voice: Paul…
Paul stops his recitation
Mercer: What’s the matter?
Paul: I don’t know how to do this... I never wrote Renell a letter, not one in all the time I’ve been on the road. Clark wrote him once for me, and then Ray wrote another time. All I did was sign them, probably on a bus going from nowhere to somewhere… or vice versa. Two letters in twenty years and I didn’t write either of them…
Different Voice: Paul, the bar is closing. If you can’t be bothered with us, we’ll go on home.
First Voice: I know a place downtown that’s open till one.
Paul: Standing, has made his decision Sit still my good men, I’m coming. “Let us go into the city presently, to sort some gentlemen well skilled in music.” That’s from Shakespeare, Mercer.
Mercer: I don’t know how you got to be so well read…what with all your social commitments.
Paul: Billy Strayhorn taught me Shakespeare. Pauses and sits He knew all of the great soliloquies and sonnets by heart… Billy was the best of us Sobering We could be booked in a dank, nasty city, staying in a seedy hotel, but when he was with us we were part of something refined.
Mercer: We were a better orchestra when he was alive, that’s for sure. And you behaved better when he was on tour with us.
Voice from Offstage: C’mon Paul. If you’re coming with us, let’s go.
Mercer: Don’t go off with those people, Paul. (Paul shakes head) If you miss the bus you may never catch up with us.
Paul: I’ll find you folks. I always do.
Mercer: We’re in New Haven tomorrow night…if you’re not there I don’t know what Duke will do. You need to get on the bus with me.
Paul: Can’t…I don’t like to let people down.
Paul picks up his saxophone and staggers away leaving the unfinished letter visible on the chair. Mercer shakes his head and exits, and the scene dissolves. Paul is back at the lake.
Paul: To himself shaking his head Don’t like to let people down… He turns to the audience and begins playing Chelsea Bridge.
Ellington: Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to announce that Paul Gonsalves has managed to find his way to New Haven and locate the orchestra. And he will now respond to a request from a gentleman who has come all the way from Lisbon to hear his conception of Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge”.
After Ellington strikes the opening notes on piano Paul launches into the climactic bars of Strayhorn’s masterpiece which continue through the opening of the next scene.
Paul returns to the bench. He is immediately confronted by Ellington and Mercer.
Ellington: We left the stage at the Rhodes at nine last night and tonight’s concert started at 7:30. It took Harry Carney two hours to get me from Providence to New Haven after we were done, and Harry never speeds. You couldn’t manage a two hour trip in twenty two hours.
Paul: I missed the bus in Providence
Mercer: You knew the bus was leaving. You had to go off with your friends.
Ellington: I don’t require my men to be on the bus. The bus is for your convenience. What I require is that you show up on time when we give a concert. If you don’t want to ride the bus then take the train, or pay for a cab.
Paul: I didn’t have any money. I had to wait for my sister to get off work and drive me.
Mercer: We paid you before the concert last night in Providence.
Paul: I’m tapped out, Mercer.
Mercer: Angry You spent it on booze and God knows what else with those so-called friends. Good God, I’ve seen men lose their draw after a night in Vegas, but you’re the first to blow it between Providence and New Haven.
Ellington: I called your wife this morning.
Paul: Why did you go and do that, Duke? I don’t call your wife.
Ellington: She told me you’re not sending money home. So from now on two thirds of your draw is going straight to her…I don’t get involved in my men’s lives, but I’m going to take you off the road for a few weeks.
Ellington: Mercer found a place where there’s people who can help you.
Paul: What kind of place?
Mercer: Its part of a hospital…it’s a treatment facility near your home.
Paul: Why are you doing this, Duke? I played well tonight.
Duke: You’re not what you once were…both of us know that. But, that’s not what this is about.
Paul: Taking me off the road isn’t going to help anything. Not playing makes everything worse.
Mercer: Doing nothing isn’t making things better. We have to do something…you have to do something.
Paul: When am I supposed to go to this place…this hospital?
Mercer: Right after we get done with the Rainbow Room engagement. We’ll get someone else to sit in for the DC trip and the southern tour and if things work out…when things work out…you’ll be back for the dates in Chicago and Wisconsin.
Paul: With the gravest of reservations What choice do I have?
Ellington: You have a choice, Paul. Do something to help yourself or go home.
A teenaged girl holding a drawing approaches the men.
Ellington: Who let you back here, young lady?
Paul: Colette…what are you doing here?
Mercer: This must be the step daughter you told me about.
Paul: There’s no step. She’s my daughter. I adopted her…Were you at the concert?
Colette: Yes, Daddy…they let me in at intermission and then one of the guys took me back here when I told them who I was.
Paul: What do you have there, baby?
Colette: I drew a picture of you playing…I can use it for art class.
Paul: Well, look at this. Hands drawing to Ellington
Ellington: Looks at the picture for a beat This is really very good. It’s hard to capture motion and effort in a drawing. You’re very talented. Who taught you to draw?
Colette: Points at her father He did.
Paul: Does your mother know you’re here?
Colette: She wouldn’t have let me come…
Paul: How did you know where we were?
Colette: I overheard Mama on the phone talking to Duke this morning and saying you were in New Haven. I was worried about you, Daddy… It sounded like everyone was mad and mama was being mean when she was talking about you. So I hitch hiked up to Yale and found the concert.
Paul: You did what? Is everything alright at home? The road is no place for a girl your age.
Colette: It’s no fun. The only time home is fun is when you’re there.
Paul: Did you like the music?
Colette: I love it when you play…except I always worry. I don’t want you to make mistakes, and sometimes I can’t figure out what you’re playing until you’re almost done. There was a song you played during the encore…it seemed happy, but when it was over I felt sad.
Paul picks up saxophone and plays several bars from “Happy Reunion”.
Paul: Was that the tune?
Colette: Yes. That was it.
Paul: You’ve got to go home, Colette.
Mercer: She can ride the bus with us down into Manhattan. Her mother can pick her up at the Edison.
Ellington: She can sit with you… but, I would be honored, young lady if you would come up and keep me company sometime before we get to New York. These days I don’t get many opportunities to chat with lovely young ladies, especially promising artists.
Colette: Can I ride with you guys, Daddy?
Paul: Just stay by my side or with Duke.
Colette sits next to him
Mercer: You’re not going to ride with Harry, Pop?
Ellington: Harry knows the way to New York without me.
Mercer: Seems to me, Paul, that I’m looking at a good reason for you to clean up a few things.
Paul: I’ll do the best I can, Mercer.
Mercer leaves and Paul leans back and closes his eyes
Colette: Don’t fall asleep, Daddy. I hardly ever get to talk to you.
Paul: I can’t help it, baby. I’m tired.
Paul drifts off. The strains of “Chelsea Bridge” are heard again as the scene goes dark.
Geoffrey enters and spots Paul asleep on the bench. He mutters “Oh my God” as he crosses the stage to wake Paul.
Geoffrey: So you did fall asleep out here. It gets cold at night in Wisconsin, even in summer. I think it dropped below fifty.
Paul: Coming to Who are you?
Geoffrey: I’m Geoffrey… the Professor from the Music Studies Department. You’re supposed to come to my class today… One of my students said he saw you out here early this morning. You’re lucky you’re alive, Paul.
Paul: I wasn’t cold.
Geoffrey: Lifts empty bottle I see what you used to stay warm…
Paul: What’s this class about, man?
Geoffrey: It’s supposed to be about what it’s like to play for Duke…perhaps, you should go back to your hotel room, clean up, and write up a few notes.
Paul: I don’t make notes, Professor…I improvise.
Geoffrey: Well, that’s your trade. But, the idea is to hear from the men. The men are part of the music.
Paul: I’m not that important, Professor.
Geoffrey: Please call me Geoffrey, Paul. Not even my students call me Professor… And you are important. Every one of the kids showing up today has heard your solo on the Newport album.
Paul: Newport was a long time ago. There’s been ten thousand nights on the road since then.
Geoffrey: Puts his hand on Paul’s shoulder My class spent last week discussing your solos. Your presentation was supposed to be one of the highlights of the week… but I’m not going to force you to speak. We don’t want a repeat of what happened last night.
Paul: Irritated Don’t worry about that…there’s nothing wrong with me.
Geoffrey: Look, Paul. You’ve been out in the elements all night…and you fell on your face during the concert…these are college kids you’re going to be talking to.
Paul: Defensive I talk to plenty of college kids. I talked to one last night… My son went to college.
Geoffrey: Why don’t you come to my office? You can rest there and we can figure out what to do. Puts his hand on Paul’s shoulder You’re shivering… I think I should take you to a doctor.
Paul: I don’t need to see any more doctors.
Geoffrey takes his jacket off and puts it around Pauls’ shoulders. Paul grabs his saxophone from the bench, puts a cover on the mouthpiece and the two walk off. Several bars of the piano solo from Sepia Panorama are heard as the scene dissolves. The lights darken and then come on Paul sitting an easy chair. Colette appears in front of him.
Paul: You’re the first visitor they let me have in this…this asylum.
Colette: It’s not an asylum, Daddy…it’s a hospital, and they want to help you.
Paul: They’re not helping me…they’re just trying to talk me out of going back on the road. And if I don’t get out of here soon, Duke will give my chair away.
Colette: Why do you have to go back on the road? If you stay home I could see you whenever I wanted.
Paul: Well, not whenever. I would have to work, if there is work. I need to support your mother, and your brother and sister. And you’d have to come downtown to see me…your mother threw me out of the house.
Colette: I know….that was mean.
Paul: Don’t be hard on her. I came and went as I pleased for years. People can’t put up with that forever.
Colette: It was fun staying at the Edison when we got back from New Haven. The hotel lobby was full of musicians. It’s such a different world.
Paul: It’s a dying world. Those men are off the road and they aren’t playing the music.
Colette: So why do you have to stay at the Edison? All we need is a place to sleep and a kitchen… You cooked something for me when I stayed with you. What was it? It was wonderful.
Paul: Linquiso…seafood sausage…made with everything that grows in salt water and muck.
I’m going to teach you Cape Verdean cooking one day…Maybe, I could live with being off the road if you and I could cook together. When we cook together I feel like your father.
Colette: You’re the only father I know…except people keep telling me you’re not my real father…that we don’t have the same blood or the same color.
Paul: Who says that?
Colette: People at school…friends of Mama. Whenever I talk about where you appeared or what you played.
Paul: I hate that kind of talk. I never pay any mind to blood or color. Folks from Cape Verde come in all kinds of colors and they’ve got all kinds of blood. My brother is dark and my sister is light. They’re the same to me, but in America everyone has to have a race, so people say my brother is black and my sister is white. I think of myself as a black man, but when I played for Basie they couldn’t figure out what I was, so they called me “Mex”... Willie Smith was the same shade as me and he used to tell people he was Egyptian…But, when I came to work for Duke I didn’t have to bother about any of that ... because what Duke and Billy wrote was about love and that was all that mattered. And that’s what gave us class.
Colette: Mama says I should stop telling people about you.
Paul: She’s right. People don’t like it when you brag on your family.
Colette: But, some people ask. My teachers know about Duke…and some of them know about you. The band teacher says he saw you play at Newport.
Paul: A lot of folks tell me they were in the audience that night, but from where I was sitting half of them left before we ever played.
Colette: He said it was the greatest performance he ever saw. He couldn’t believe that he knew someone who was part of your family…
Paul: That was long ago… I don’t think Duke wants me to tour with him anymore.
Collette: You’re talking like there’s nothing else, Daddy.
Paul: There’s other things, Colette… I just don’t know what they are… You have to understand… an artist has to keep moving. If you’re not on the move, you don’t grow and if you don’t grow, you die. Look at Hawk, Pres, and Willie. They didn’t last more than a couple of months once there were no out of town dates.
Colette: You’re not going to die if you come home. I can come stay with you and we can cook.
Paul: And how would you get to school?
Colette: I wasn’t talking about days when there’s school.
Paul: There’s no room for you in that little apartment.
Colette: Sometimes I don’t think there’s room for me in your life.
Paul: Now, that’s not true. But, musicians don’t have regular hours. Even if I just stayed in New York, I’d have to go off and leave you alone.
Colette: I’m not afraid of being alone…I worry about you being alone.
She has hit home and Paul doesn’t respond. He plays a bar of “In a Sentimental Mood” and the scene dissolves
The scene opens on Geoffrey’s office. He is sitting in a swivel chair behind a desk. Paul is fast asleep in the easy chair with the Professor’s jacket draped over him and his saxophone nestled next to him. Mercer enters.
Geoffrey: Thank you for coming, Mercer. Paul is supposed to speak in less than an hour and I don’t see any way I can raise him.
Mercer: Were you really expecting anything different. He’s in no condition to give a talk to college kids. I told him as much last night.
Geoffrey: He said he would do the class.
Mercer: When did he provide you those sentiments?
Geoffrey: Earlier this morning, when I found him by the lake. He spent the night there.
Mercer: Approaches Paul and raises his arm C’mon man, you’re supposed to be a professional musician, and my man the Professor here has told all these college kids that you’re a hell of a player.
Paul raises his head, grunts, and then falls back into the chair.
Mercer: Dammit Paul, I’m serious. You’re embarrassing yourself… again. Mercer sniffs the air around Paul My God, you stink like the devil. You haven’t changed out of the clothes you wore at the concert.
Paul: I was doing an encore out by the lake, man. You’re not supposed to change clothes for an encore.
Paul fades out
Mercer: Looking down at him with a mixture of sadness and disapproval. Yeah, you were doing an encore, alright…
Geoffrey: I appreciate you coming to sub for him. I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do if he couldn’t speak… Perhaps we’ll get lucky. If he comes to, the kids could end up hearing from two members of the band.
Mercer: I am afraid, Geoffrey, that if I hadn’t shown up your students wouldn’t be hearing from anyone in the orchestra.
Geoffrey: Come again.
Mercer: Paul isn’t with us anymore.
Geoffrey: Not with the orchestra… when did that happen?
Mercer: Right after last night’s concert.
Geoffrey: Why? You’ve run into those problems before.
Mercer: Last night went to a new level…or a new low.
Geoffrey: It could have been worse. We had chairs pushed up to the edge of the stage. He could have fallen on someone in the audience. Now that would have been a real disaster.
Mercer: It was disaster enough, Professor. You know, I’m used to all manner of distractions...and now and then I can even handle a small disaster. It’s a professional skill that I’ve developed to deal with all the foolishness in this band. We’ve had a kleptomaniac, a cross dresser, and a fellow that liked to swing a bolo knife. I’ve learned to deal with all of it so long as we could keep it away from the audience and the music was played right. But, now he’s embarrassing us…
Geoffrey: I can’t imagine the orchestra without him. His sound is one of your calling cards.
Mercer: Those cards have been played for over twenty years, Geoffrey, and now they’re played out. It doesn’t work anymore… He’s finished.
Paul stirs when he hears the word “finished”
Paul: Finished…what do you mean by finished?
Mercer: Tell me, Paul… what am I supposed to do with you.
Paul: You tell me where I am, man?
Mercer: What does it matter where you are? You’re on the road. Paul nods and fades off, again. Mercer looks down on Paul, who is tightly gripping his saxophone even though he is, again, unconscious I’ve seen him nod off on stage, and once in a while he even falls off his chair, but no matter what he always holds on to that saxophone. But now I’ve got to find someone to take his place, and I’ll be lucky if there’s a player around who can hold a horn half as well…Can I have a few minutes with him alone, Geoffrey?
Geoffrey leaves and Mercer bends down to try to raise Paul, but he comes to
Paul: What’s on your mind, Mercer?
Mercer: Nothing very kind, my friend.
Paul: That’s too bad. Kindness is a rare and valuable attribute.
Mercer: That’s quite an insight.
Paul: How much trouble am I in?
Mercer: You are well beyond trouble. I would say you’ve crossed the frontiers of insecurity and penetrated into the territory of career mortality.
Paul: Shakes head and waits a beat before response I knew the grim reaper would come one day, Mercer, but I didn’t think he would have your face.
Mercer: I didn’t seek out the role, Paul. I knew this moment would come and I dreaded it, but here it is. You’re done. I’ve been on the phone trying to find someone I can bring in from New York to sit in your place. We’re giving “Cottontail” to Harold and taking “Happy Reunion” out of the book.
Paul: So he means it.
Mercer: This time he really means it. We can’t carry you anymore
Paul: Man, Duke is getting tough.
Mercer shakes his head and can’t help from smiling, but then bends down to speak at face level with Paul
Mercer: Look, I talked to Clark and some of the other guys in New York. Clark said he can get you studio work. It’s steady, you wouldn’t be on the road, and if you handle it right you can make as much as you do from us.
Paul: What kind of way to live is that…not going anywhere…not seeing anything…not doing anything creative.
Mercer: You were certainly creative in all kinds of ways last night.
Paul: Sighs and acknowledges the point So how do I go about getting this studio work?
Mercer: Clark will do it for you. I’ll give you his number once we’re done here.
Paul: What are we doing here?
Mercer: You’re not doing anything. You know, I was debating with myself whether I could trust you to talk to these kids without making the band look foolish. Then you spend the night on the street and come to the Professor’s office in this state. No…I can’t rely on you for something like this…you’re done.
Paul: I’d like to do something right this week.
Mercer: Falling on your face twice in twelve hours isn’t going to help you find work when you leave here. If you want to do something right, clean yourself up. You can come sit in the back of the room if you feel up to it. If not, stay here until the class is finished…then I’ll figure out how to get you home.
Mercer stands up and begins to leave, but then turns to face Paul again.
Mercer: I know you think we’re being cruel by doing this.
Paul: Business is business.
Mercer: It’s not business. It’s personal… I know how I want you remembered…as one of the greatest soloists to ever play with this orchestra, not as someone who embarrassed himself night after night in his…in Duke’s final years…I need to go make some calls.
Paul blows several bars of “Chelsea Bridge” and Renell enters. They are back at the hospital
Renell: This is some hall you’re appearing at.
Paul: The keepers say it’s a hospital. I don’t recommend it. The chef isn’t very creative and there’s a heavy cover charge. How did you find me?
Renell: I wasn’t trying to hunt you down, man. A place in the village took us on for a few weeks so I asked our agent to contact Mercer. I thought you guys might want to come see us if you were in town. But, Mercer said you were doing a solo gig here in Long Island.
Paul: Not for long… I got to get back on the road before they give my career away.
Renell: Smiles We cut a record after I saw you in Detroit, and now we go on the road all the time… I understand why you like it. When you hit a new town life starts over. Anything bad that came before never happened…But, the road is a lonely place, man. I lay down a steady beat and no-one notices unless I make a mistake. Then, after I play, it takes half an hour to pack up my gear and by that time everyone else is gone and the world is empty…And that’s when you have to fight to keep evil people away.
Paul: A drummer has a hard life. That’s something I should have told you. I’ve seen soloists play games with their rhythm sections. Bird used to change tempo and rhythm just to see if his drummer could stay with him and Prez would lay back behind the beat while the drummer and bassist were trying to figure out if he was ever going to catch up. I never did that. I always stay right on the beat because I need a good pulse for my playing to come to life, so my rhythm section is family.
Renell: I don’t need to worry about that kind of stuff. I’m not backing big names like Bird or Prez, or you.
Paul: I’m not a big name.
Renell: Yes you are, especially when your name is combined with Mr Duke Ellington’s. They even put it in our billing…see. Renell takes a leaflet out of his pocket, unfolds it, and hands it to his father.
Paul: Reading “On drums, Renell Gonsalves, son of longtime Ellington sax great Paul Gonsalves”. That’s more notice than I get with my own band these days… I don’t care about that… Every band I ever played for had better known people. It didn’t matter so long as they let me play. And, one way or another, I always ended up with big solos… and Duke, when he had to have it at Newport… he put it in my hands. You were just a boy, Renell, but you should have been there.
Paul stands and gathers himself into a playing position and the opening piano chords of Diminuendo and Crescendo play softly in the background. The lights come on in the room, Renell disappears, Geoffrey enters, and the reverie is broken
Geoffrey: Were you talking to someone, Paul?
Paul: No…No, Professor. Talking about myself to myself. Just empty words.
Geoffrey: But, I want you to talk about yourself, except to a room with people.
Paul: Mercer doesn’t want me to come.
Geoffrey: It’s up to you, Paul.
Paul: I don’t see the point of it anymore. Your kids want to hear from the men in the orchestra.
Geoffrey: They want to hear from you. You were one of the greatest soloists in the greatest orchestra in jazz. No-one can take that from you… we’ve had more kids sign up for your Master Class than any other. Even after all this time, they all know about you and they all know about Newport.
Geoffrey leaves. Paul raises his head as if to remember.
Paul: They all know about Newport. But, Duke doesn’t care about Newport anymore and I can barely remember…
Paul stands and plays several warm up arpeggios.
Ellington: This is your crowd, Paul.
Paul: (Cool) What gives you that idea, Duke?
Ellington: Don’t play with me. They were yelling for you between each number in that first set. How many of your friends are out there?
Paul: Fifty or so that I can see, counting family of course… Maybe more. We’re only an hour from Pawtucket. This is home, Duke.
Ellington: That’s quite impressive, Paul…We won’t get back on until midnight. Do you think they’ll stay?
Paul: My people will stay till dawn to hear me.
Ellington: Then we should reward them. Let’s do something fun. Let’s do Diminuendo and Crescendo.
Paul: Smiling and cocky Aw Duke, I’m not sure I remember that one. I may have to go find the manuscript.
Ellington: Don’t goof with me …not tonight. That’s the number where we play the blues and change keys. Number 107 and 108.
Paul: You’re the one who changes keys, Duke. I’m in B flat all the way.
Ellington: Alright then. I’ll lead you in and you go until you’re out of air.
The Ellington piano chords which lead into the great solo sound and Paul steps into a spotlight and plays the first minutes of the solo with growing intensity. The playing continues as the spotlight goes off and the scene ends.
The scene opens on Geoffrey standing at the podium in his classroom. There is a piano situated behind him against the back wall. Mercer Ellington is sitting in a folding chair placed to his right. There is an empty chair next to Mercer.
Mercer: To Geoffrey He’s not coming, Geoffrey.
Geoffrey: That’s disappointing.
Mercer: It’s for the best.
Geoffrey: To Mercer Alright, we’re already running ten minutes late…To audience Ladies and gentlemen, as part of our week long program honoring Duke Ellington and his orchestra here at the University of Wisconsin I am pleased to say that some of the Duke’s men have agreed to step out of their normal roles and become our teachers. And, while it had been my hope that the legendary Paul Gonsalves would be our guest today, we are extremely fortunate to have a wonderful substitute. Without warning Paul appears carrying his saxophone. So I would like to introduce a gentleman who is a trumpeter, arranger, and composer for the orchestra. He is also the son of Duke Ellington…I would hope you would welcome Mr Mercer Ellington. Paul ambles with some difficulty towards the podium, stops and looks at Geoffrey and Mercer. Both are at a loss for words for several beats before Mercer stands.
Mercer: Ladies and Gentlemen…this is Paul Gonsalves.
Geoffrey: I am very happy to see you, Paul…Before we get into this morning’s agenda would you like to say anything to the class?
Geoffrey and Mercer help Paul to his place at the mike
Paul: Thank you, Professor… Gathers self I would just like to start off like my boss would, by telling you long haired young people that you are really a wonderful bunch of cats and you are very beautiful, very kind, very sweet, and, I do love you all madly. The statement is taken as sincere and draws scattered applause, a reaction which clearly comforts the speaker.
Geoffrey: Paul, why don’t we start this morning by having you tell us about yourself and how you came to be a saxophonist?
Paul: Thinks for a beat and then moves into his presentation When I was fourteen my brother and I went and saw the great Willie Smith perform with Jimmie Lunceford. After seeing them I knew that being a saxophonist in a big band was the greatest thing anyone could ever do. The problem was…I didn’t have a saxophone. But, one day the owner of a music store I used to hang around showed up and offered my father a special deal. He would sell his saxophone to me for only fifty dollars if I would stop ogling his instruments and scaring away his customers. And my Dad, bless his heart, pulled that money out of his pocket and paid the man, and then made me promise to repay him a dollar a week for the next fifty weeks…and I never missed a week. Smiles and shakes head Now, even back in the depression a fifty dollar saxophone was a beat up piece of metal. But, I learned everything there was to know about that instrument and I cleaned and shined every moving part it had until it was fit for Lunceford’s band.
Paul reflects for a beat
You know, playing jazz is not exactly a normal way to make a living. Willie, Lunceford…Duke…they were inspiring. But, I could have caught any of them on a bad night when they weren’t right and the playing was stale and the audience was bored. And then I just might have walked away and gone back to wanting to be the world’s greatest commercial artist, which is what I was planning to do before falling in love with this instrument (points at saxophone)... But, that would have been a different life, because playing jazz is much different than any other kind of art. See, when you draw pictures you can always throw them away and start over if you don’t like what you did... but, once you play a jazz solo, you can’t take it back. It becomes part of your life. When it’s bad it just hangs there in the air like a curse word or the smell of spoiled food…but when it’s good and your audience responds, you leave a part of yourself with them…and you change them and they change you…that’s a special feeling and I’ve traveled the world chasing it.
Geoffrey: We’ve talked a lot about jazz history in class. But, I don’t know the answer to the most important question… “How do you learn to play jazz?” Can either of you gentlemen give us an insight?
Mercer: I play parts in the trumpet section, Professor. Paul is the jazz musician up here.
Paul: Duke always told us that you could learn an instrument, but jazz is something you experience… No-one taught me jazz. When I decided I wanted to learn the saxophone I auditioned for a great classical reedman up in Boston by the name of Giuseppe Piagetelli. Giuseppe taught me clarinet and saxophone, and soon I could play all sorts of classical pieces. But, he wasn’t sure about jazz. Affecting an Italian accent “ It’s a street music, Paul. Music should lift you out of the gutter, not take you there.” Then I played him Duke’s recording of “Mood Indigo”, and when it was over he smiled because he understood what Duke was doing. We put the theme on paper and he taught me to play it on clarinet… and after a time he told me he considered Duke a classical composer, which was the highest praise he could give. After three years Giuseppe told me there was nothing more he could teach me, except one last thing. And he said “just remember, music is a beautiful thing, and so long as you can play you will always have beauty in your life.”
Silence for a beat
Geoffrey: Last week we played the Newport album in class. And while I was listening to your playing on “Diminuendo and Crescendo” I kept wondering, did you really pull that solo together that evening when you stepped to the microphone?
Paul: Thinks for several beats before speaking Jazz is supposed to be improvised, but it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Like the name of the number says, before I ever play a note there’s a “diminuendo” and the band bottoms out… I lived between the diminuendo and the crescendo in that piece for months on tour before we played it at Newport. And when I come in, the object is to rise Paul rises… rise above frustration and loneliness, rise above what the road takes out of you. Looks up in the effort to remember They made us wait until late in the night for our second set, and while we were trying to get started it looked like half the audience was headed home… But, I looked back and there was Duke clapping his hands and urging me on because he wanted something big. And there were my own people in the audience, calling for me…yelling “Go Paul” with every chorus… Ellington’s piano modulations leading into the “Crescendo” sound softly in the background as Paul talks Then there was Sam and Jimmy laying down that big beat, the beat that gave me life. That’s all I needed. I started playing and, finally, I was like Willie the night I first saw him, flying above everyone with nothing holding me back…
Some men play to prove something about themselves…I don’t do that. I just wanted to make my friends proud and to make sure people knew we were still the best. And they ran back to their seats to listen, and when it was over everyone knew that Duke was still on top. And he told me he would never forget what I did for him. The music stops and Paul stands still for several beats as if he is not sure where he is or where to go. He then understands his surroundings and looks at Mercer But, when you blow through metal for a living all you have are time and air, and when you run out of either, you’re done… and the notes drift away, and you wonder if any of it really happened.
Mercer: It happened, Paul. I was there.
Paul: To the students Don’t worry about playing what I played. Don’t copy it…use it for inspiration… Duke says that music isn’t an occupation or a profession, it’s a compulsion, and our compulsion took us all over the world. Nothing was ever as important as playing for Duke Ellington and being part of his art… from the time I first heard the music there was no turning back…and after all this time I don’t know what life would be like without Duke calling me to the microphone to play for him. Duke Ellington appears just before Paul concludes and makes his way towards the podium. Paul does not see him and begins to vacate the podium.
Geoffrey: Thank you, Paul. Paul Gonsalves… Geoffrey looks up and spots Ellington. Startled Duke, I didn’t know you were coming.
Ellington: I heard from Mercer that you might be short of lecturers for this class…
Geoffrey: Pointing to piano But, we have no pianist, Duke. Perhaps you will indulge us.
Ellington: With a professional smile and wave Well, Professor, a vacant seat in front of a piano is an opportunity that should never be declined. He approaches Paul and smells his clothing You still juiced, stinky?
Ellington: Then what do you want to play?
Paul: Happy Reunion?
Ellington: Happy Reunion?
Paul: Yeah…yeah…Happy Reunion.
Ellington: Someone bring a microphone.
Paul: I don’t need that.
A microphone is placed in front of Paul
Ellington: Take the mike.
Paul positions himself in front of the mike and Ellington nods his head, tacitly acknowledging yet another reconciliation with his player. He then strides to the piano to play the opening chorus. Gonsalves moves confidently into the piece and, while Mercer and Geoffrey stand transfixed, Ellington emits an “ahh...” of approval as the light on he and Paul dims. As the playing continues Mercer steps forward and is joined by Renell coming from the other side of the stage.
Mercer: He never did have to figure out what to do with himself when Pop stopped calling him to the microphone. After Pop took ill and went into the hospital, Paul went off to Europe. I don’t know what happened, but they brought him back to New York just in time to be laid out in a funeral home in a room right next to where they had already put Duke…I’ll be damned if Pop didn’t have to wait on him to take the stage even for their final appearance.
Renell: I plied my trade with a funk band for quite a time, but then I came back to jazz like some sort of planet that drifts in open space until it finally falls into the pull of a star. There are no big bands anymore, just combos and dates at high schools and clubs. But, sometimes late in a set, just before last call on a rainy night in Cleveland or Chicago, I’ll find a special rhythm, and the pianist and saxophonist will pick up on it, and for a few moments I’m Sam Woodyard or Louie Bellson driving my Dad to his limits in a long gone dance hall. I try to hold on to that vision for as long as I can, but the set ends, the bar closes, and it slips through my fingers and always stays just out of reach as I try to chase it down a rain slicked street through the neon mist.
Renell exits, Mercer sits back down, and the light brightens for a few seconds on Duke and
Paul playing before the stage goes dark.