Paul Gonsalves

Master Musician 1920 - 1974

Conversation with Paul Gonsalves

by Stanley Dance

“Even when I take a jazz solo now,” Paul Gonsalves said, “I may reach far back to some of the things I played in my childhood” Gonsalves’ parents came from Cape Verde and his father taught him and his two brothers to play guitar. They learned to play music for Portuguese folk dances, and they picked up hillbilly and Hawaiian styles from radio and records. On weekends, friends and relatives of the family would come visiting, and the boys had to be around the house to entertain. This grievously interfered with Gonsalves’ athletic activities and the trio became a chore. “I built up this thing within me where I came to hate music,” he recalled, “especially the humdrum kind we often had to play.”

Luckily, his oldest brother, Joseph, had an insight into jazz, and Gonsalves remembered how they were both attracted by an Ellington record a deejay used for his theme early in the morning when Joseph was dressing for work. They would also listen to live band broadcasts at night, and on Saturdays Joseph would always spend part of his paycheck on records by Ellington, Henderson, and Lunceford. Gonsalves got to recognise all the great soloists of that era, but he remained more interested in playing until, when he was sixteen, Joseph took him to a midnight show at the RKO theatre in Providence.

“The feeling that came over me when the movie ended, and all the lights went out, and the curtains parted, and I saw Jimmie Lunceford’s band – man! Of course, I knew all their records, knew all Willie Smith’s solos, and liked the band next to Duke’s. When I went home that night I was so thrilled, and I decided from that time on I wanted to play saxophone. So I worried my father until he went out and bought me one, a fifty-dollar tenor in pretty bad shape, but still a saxophone”.

“Coleman Hawkins was my main influence. There was something in his music that coincided with Duke’s, that for me denoted class. Apart from his musicianship, there was something about him personally – the way he held his horn, the way he dressed. I called him ‘the Duke Ellington of the saxophone.’ His style seemed more musical than that of other tenors, a kind of classic way of playing. I admired Lester Young, but Coleman Hawkins was it for me.”

“When I graduated from high school in 1938, we finally gave up the trio. I was going to be a commercial artist and had the chance to get a scholarship to one of the best commercial art schools in the country, the Rhode Island School of Design, but I had become proficient enough to double on sax and guitar and I got a job in Providence. It was my first professional job, in a tuxedo, playing from five in the afternoon to one in the morning. I made an impression on the local musicians and that added to my ego.”

Gonsalves was fortunate in finding a tutor who had taught in the Boston Conservatory and who took a real interest in him. He did not look down on jazz and he was such an inspiration that Gonsalves used to practice diligently – “eight hours a day, four in the morning and four in the afternoon.”

After three years his technical proficiency encompassed everything his teacher could impart, but on the latter’s advice he studied clarinet for a further year. (Many years later, in Canada, he picked up Harry Carney’s clarinet and blew some arpeggios. Ellington came out of his dressing room at once. “Who’s that playing clarinet?” he wanted to know. Gonsalves had modeled his style on Barney Bigard’s).

Although he didn’t study harmony and theory as his teacher suggested, Gonsalves found his background of guitar playing stood him in good stead when it came to the new chord progressions. “And I always had a tendency to play a lot of notes, because I had plenty of technical ability. Musicians used to say, ‘Why not play less complicated?’ But I always felt I should play as much as I could play, and that, you might say, has shaped my style. Although I've been influenced by some great musicians, I feel today that I’ve devoted enough time and study to the instrument to inject my own feelings into what I play.”

“My teacher also taught me that since jazz was largely improvised, you could incorporate from all types of music. He encouraged me to listen and broaden my scope, and I found this to be true. So many of the comical quotes and tags in jazz come out of different musical experiences, such as being in a little pit band. You can hear classical tags on records by Louis, Bird, and Dizzy. When a jazz musician gets up to play a chorus, to tell a story, all these ideas are in his mind and liable to pop up at any moment. The real art is how utilise these things.”

Gonsalves’ first band experience was in an eight-piece group in Providence led by Henry McCoy and called the Jitterbugs. When that broke up he joined Phil Edmonds in New Bedford. “It was then I found out about the hardships when you’re away from home,” he said, “but these experiences add to your playing. What had to be added to the music, after you’d studied all those books, was something you had to live. So we were a bunch of young kids, and if we didn’t have anything to eat next day we’d chalk it up as part of the game. I’m glad I had those experiences. There were so many opportunities in those days, even if the pay was only three dollars a night. There were places to play, places to jam, and places, so to say, to go to school. You might get a job where you had to accompany vaudeville acts, and that was experience, too. The opportunity to play was all important. Musicians would play regardless of the money, and then go someplace afterwards to jam. The big bands were schools too, and every little town or locality had them. Around Boston, there must have been twenty fourteen- or fifteen-piece bands. Fellows used to rehearse for nothing and the conversation at those rehearsals would be very much concerned with the solos of famous artists on records. There’s so much stress on conforming to business now that it’s become more cut and dried. Those times won’t happen again.”

From the time he left high school, Gonsalves found he was able to make a living in music. He was in the army from 1942 to 1945. When he came back from India, he joined Sabby Lewis and his fame began to spread. Visiting musicians passed on the word about “the young tenor player at the Savoy in Boston.” Eventually, when Jacquet left, he had a telephone call from Count Basie, whom he joined at the Royal Theatre in Baltimore. He brought the house down playing Jacquet’s Mutton Leg.

After four years with Basie, he returned for a while to Sabby Lewis. Then Dizzy Gillespie called him. “I wondered about myself, because I didn’t consider myself a ‘modern’ artist, but if Dizzy saw something in my playing … well, maybe I ought to go.” He stayed until the band folded (“it was one of the best Dizzy ever had”) and then he headed for New York with his savings.

“I didn’t know if I could make it in the Big City. I thought I would starve, you know, like an artist in a garret. But what really happened was that I had a ball everyday. I used to go to that place on 110th street and jam, and Charlie Parker used to come by there, and maybe in the daytime Gene Ammons, Charlie, and I would go out in row-boats.”

“September rolled around, and it was starting to get a little cold, and I decided I ought to get a job. I woke up one morning with just $7.20 in the world. I couldn’t sleep and all through that day something kept telling me to get up, get dressed, and go to Birdland. It got to be eleven o’clock at night before I did just that. There was a crowd around a table where Duke was sitting. By the time he got up to leave, I’d had a few drinks. Normally, I’m of shy, but now I had enough nerve to say:

Hi, Duke, how are you?

Say, aren’t you Paul Gonsalves?


Hey, sweetie, I’ve been looking for you. Why don’t you come down to the office tomorrow?

“The result was that he asked me to go out on a string of dates with the band. Secretly, I was thinking, ‘I’ve got this job, because I know all Ben Webster’s solos from the records.’ The first thing Duke played was C Jam Blues, and then Settin’ and a-Rockin’. So I asked him if he still had Chelsea Bridge, and as I stood up to play my solo I overheard him say to Quentin Jackson:

        “’This so-and-so sounds just like Ben!’

        “So I got the job.

“If I die tomorrow, I’ll consider I’ve been successful because when I began to study music it was with the idea of being in that band. I’ve tried to keep a tone that fits it during my ten years. My teacher told me that while you have to have good technique to facilitate your ideas, primarily you should try for a good tone. That’s why I always admired Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas and Ben Webster, and why, when I doubled on alto with Sabby Lewis, I always tried to sound like Johnny Hodges.

“When Charlie Parker and the modernists came on the scene a kind of straight tone became a necessity, and not only in order to play fast. With the closer harmonies that came with the modern concept of jazz, the style of playing with a lot of wide vibrato had to go or the music would have sounded out of tune. I think that music reflected the times. There was more tension, speed, neuroticism. Jazz was being stereotyped and I can remember being bored while I was Basie’s band. Changes like that don’t happen only in music. The importance of art is the way it affects practical things. We don’t have the money to buy a Picasso, but his work can affect the lines of, say, a lamp. Lines are derived from those paintings and you can see beauty in things now that you couldn’t ten years ago. Maybe that explains why I likes jazz so much, preferred it to classical music. There was a freedom in it and I could interpret my own ideas.

“Now you can maybe name a band that puts down more consistently precise performances, but not one that plays such complicated unorthodox music as Duke writes. He is still progressing himself. Some of the fellows don’t always understand some of the things he brings into the band today. They feel it’s a little advanced and they say ‘What’s he trying to do? What’s this?’ But Duke knows his band consists of fifteen musicians, and he knows they’re human beings, too. He is prepared for performances to vary, according to the way the guys feel, and according to what he can draw out of them. One night we may stink, but the next night we may sound wonderful. When there’s that fusion between guys who all feel like playing, when everything’s going down right, and we’re playing the music the way it should be played, then it’s the greatest band there is. I heard Duke tell someone, ‘you can’t stand over a band of this sort with a whip and expect to get music out of it.’ I worked a couple of weeks with Tommy Dorsey once, and Tommy was a wonderful guy, but there was no feeling at all and musically it was miserable.

“The real story behind the success of Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue is relevant here I think. There had been a big controversy among New York musicians when we went into Birdland about what we were going to do in a predominantly ‘modern’ house. ‘Duke’s band will die in there,’ they were saying, but we were really swinging at that time. Out of a clear blue sky, Duke says, ‘Get out 107, 108.’ I’d never played it although I had the original record at home. This particular time, when they got through playing the first part, I leaned over to him and said:

        “’Let me take some choruses here.’

        “‘Go ahead,’ he said.

“I don’t know how many choruses I played, but I know it caused some excitement. People were standing on their chairs. We didn’t play it again until that time at Newport. We were getting reading to go on when Duke called me in the wings.

        “’Paul , do you remember that number we played at Birdland – 107, 108?’

        “’Yes,’ I said.

        “’That’s what I want you to play tonight. When we get through the first part, you go out there and play as long as you like.’

“When the record came out, there was a lot on the album cover about Jo Jones that I felt was very wrong. It happened that there was a real competitive feeling in the band that night, and we went out there to play the very best that we could. After all the little groups, the impact of a big band is what you want for a festival’s finale. Paul Desmond told me shortly afterwards, ‘What you and the band played was the most honest statement that night.’

“Of course, I thought I had only played a couple of minutes. I’ve never tried to memorize the record. I don’t even have it at home and have never listened to it. It has become harder and harder to do, night after night, because the people expect me to play a long time. The length is really determined by the way the rhythm section is working and how everything is building up. The climax may come after ten or five choruses, but if you go beyond it you destroy everything. One night in Des Moines, Iowa, a guy in front of the stand made me angry.

        “’Hm, you, Paul Gonsalves … I don’t think you can play that long like on the record,’ he said.

        “So I played sixty-six choruses. Some nights I play it and ideas come, but sometimes they won’t.”

As Ellington and Johnny Hodges are always at pains to point out, however, Gonsalves is at his creative best on ballads and slow mood pieces. He is frequently heard in a rich, rhapsodic version of In a Sentimental Mood with the band, and he has recorded attractive versions of Hodges’ features, Warm Valley and Day Dream, as well as Quincy Jones’ The Midnight Sun Never Sets. On numbers at fast tempos he satisfies the public conception of the frenzied, driving tenor man, but behind the sacrificial image there remains one of the most exciting soloists in the field. His sympathy with the ‘modern’ element has, it is hoped, been made evident here. Yet his taste in jazz is extremely broad, albeit critically selective. When the band was playing Boston’s Storyville, he would insist, during intermissions, on escorting his friends downstairs to hear Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon. “This is authentic,” he would say, meaning that within their idiom they were genuine artists.

While Duke Ellington was in France, working on the movie, Paris Blues, Gonsalves, like other members of the band, spent much of his vacation in record studios. He recorded with John Lewis, with Nat Adderley, with a percussion unit, and with Booty Wood. Leading a group that featured Sir Charles Thompson, Ray Nance, Harold Ashby, Aaron Bell, and Jo Jones on two sessions, he not only played tenor, but guitar as well, for the first time on record.

“Who does that remind you of?” he asked, grinning. “Teddy Bunn?”