Paul Gonsalves

Master Musician 1920 - 1974

Paul Gonsalves Remembered

by Arthur Luby

On the first Monday of November 1972 on a wet, near freezing, evening, The Duke Ellington Orchestra delivered the last performance it would ever give under Ellington’s leadership in the state of Rhode Island, at “Rhodes on the Pawtuxet” Ballroom in Cranston. The state of Rhode Island had, of course, been the scene of one of Ellington’s most significant-- and certainly most publicized-- triumphs, some sixteen years earlier and thirty miles to the east in Newport. That evening the band, inspired by Rhode Island native Paul Gonsalves’ driving 27 chorus bridge between “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”, and egged on by thousands of intense fans who stayed beyond midnight until the Duke’s return to the stage, delivered an historic performance which changed the trajectory of Ellington’s career and set the stage for his final, highly productive, years. The scene in 1956, which I knew of only from reading the liner notes to the album “Ellington at Newport”, couldn’t have contrasted more starkly with the one I saw in 1972 --- a group of tired men climbing off a bus and finding their way through the sleet to play to an audience of less than twenty.

Time had been unkind in several other ways. The band was deep into its post-Strayhorn/Hodges era and, while Duke still retained the services of a number of excellent and unfairly underrated replacements for the departed or deceased (Harold Ashby, Norris Turney, and Johnny Coles come most immediately to mind), the orchestra could never be made whole from the loss of those twin pillars. By this time Duke was also showing the effects of the illness which eventually killed him. He had taken to wearing some sort of derby, one assumes to cover up the effects of treatment, and the witticisms and leg pulling that were always part of the performance seemed rote and scripted.

The tenor saxophonist responsible for Ellington’s triumph in 1956 was also not faring well. According to trade publications Paul Gonsalves, less than 52 years old at the time, had suffered some sort of stroke, although in Gonsalves’ case references to illness were often euphemisms for the substance abuse issues which had haunted him throughout his career. Whatever it was, there were several “Downbeat” reviewers who intimated he was no longer capable of carrying the sort of driving multi chorus solos which had made his name. I had seen Gonsalves with the Ellington Orchestra at least three times before that evening, all on good nights. He was a visually arresting, intense, athletic figure on stage—I once saw him do a scissors kick across a bandstand to get to the microphone to take a long solo on a piece called “Ready Go”, which I believe was a simplified version of the famous interval between “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”. And I also saw him deliver brilliant renditions of ballads like “Chelsea Bridge” and “Happy Reunion” with a broad breathy tone and pulsating wavelike attack into the melody, an approach that gave his playing a poignant edge unique to the Orchestra.

I admired his playing and stage presence and I recognized him across the dining room that evening when my friends and I stopped to get directions to the Rhodes Ballroom at a restaurant. I began to walk across the room to introduce myself, but I spotted the drink in his left hand and heard him shouting at friends and thought better of it. I was not totally surprised that Gonsalves was not in his chair on the far right of the reed section when Duke hit the familiar repeating opening notes to the “C Jam Blues” an hour later, but was relieved to see him scramble to his seat barely in time to take the opening tenor solo. He had forgotten his tie. His appearance was warmly received. Most of the small audience that had found their way through the weather to the Rhodes that evening was there for Paul. That included a man, accompanied by his sons, who told me he had served in the army in India with him in World War II, several people from the area who claimed to be childhood friends, and his younger sister, Mrs Julia Netto, who had come across town from Pawtucket to see him. She was seated behind me and introduced herself after she overheard me express concern about her brother’s whereabouts as curtain time approached.

The concert was surprisingly good given the circumstances and Paul, no doubt in deference to his friends and relatives, was called on to take several solos. There was the strolling saxophone rendition of “In a Sentimental Mood” (which I later learned was sometimes called for by Duke to assist his musician in working off the effects of too much drink) but, that evening, also gave Paul a chance to circulate near the audience and acknowledge friends. “Cotton Tail” was played, although without the same excitement or impact that the piece usually carried in front of a large knowledgeable crowd. And there was, surprisingly, “Heaven”, a wonderful number from “The Second Sacred Concert” originally taken by Johnny Hodges in the recording, but played with bona fide passion by Gonsalves in the near empty hall. Above all, there was “Happy Reunion”, pieced together by Gonsalves in a series of broad toned phrases and obviously played for his sister. The concert was completed within two hours, no encore was taken, and the musicians minus Duke, repaired to a bar on the other side of the ballroom wall which enjoyed its first significant business of the evening. Paul, his saxophone still in hand and a towel draped around his shoulders, embraced his sister and greeted his army friend and sons. They gathered together in a corner of the bar and he showed the boys how to finger his instrument. His warmth towards the young men and affection for his sister were clear enough that even those of his friends who stayed to say hello left the little group alone for a time. It was almost certainly the last chance any of them would ever have to see him play.

The Cape Verde archipelago is located in the Atlantic some three hundred miles west of Senegal. It is a group of volcanic islands subject to recurrent droughts which, over the centuries, have led to the starvation of substantial portions of the population. That population was largely composed of West Africans enslaved by Portuguese traders, who used the islands as a way station to train and teach their human quarry European language and customs before transporting them to the Caribbean or South America. After a time the enslaved were kept in Cape Verde to work on coffee plantations and other agricultural enterprises, and over the course of centuries there was considerable mixing between the Portuguese and the Africans, and later between the natives and sailors from American and European whaling ships and traders. The interface of races produced what became the Crioulo population and culture, a phenomenon poeticized by the great Cape Verdean writer Jorge Barbosa:

Ship Ahoy…Ship Ahoy

Americans are arriving

Midst the hubbub of the quay

There are tears of joy

Fugitive Crystals

Lighting up the women’s eyes

All have passed by

Chinese, Negroes, Americans, and Dutchmen

All have passed by

And casually left their race

In the bellies of the harlots of the port.

Waves of Cape Verdeans fleeing drought and starvation came to Southern New England, first to find work harvesting cranberries on Cape Cod and on whaling ships based in New Bedford in the nineteenth century, and then as longshoreman and mill workers in Providence and Pawtucket in the early twentieth century, before the flow of immigrants was cut off by the US Congress in the early 1920’s. Paul Gonsalves’ parents appear to have been part the last group of legal Cape Verde immigrants who arrived in New England during or shortly after World War I. While different articles have indicated he was born in Boston, according to his sister Mrs Netto, he was born in 1920 in Brockton and the family moved to New Bedford and then Pawtucket, a city which, at present, has the largest Cape Verdean population in the country.

Gonsalves’ death in London in April 1974 received surprisingly little notoriety even in Providence, where he began his career. There was a short article in the Providence Journal and Fred Grady, who was the host of a well known nightly jazz show carried on a Providence radio station, played several Gonsalves ballads the night his death became public. And, as it happened, his passing was completely overshadowed a few days later when Ellington himself succumbed to cancer, and the two lay together, along with the veteran Ellington trombonist Tyree Glenn, in Walter B. Cooke Funeral Home in Manhattan. Later in the spring a service was held in Long Island where his close friend, the great trumpeter and violinist Ray Nance, played “My Buddy” in honor of his friend. However, in contrast to the apparent indifference of the home town press at the time of his death, by the following fall posters announcing concerts in honor of Gonsalves began to appear on Wickenden Street in what was left of the old Cape Verdean longshoring community in Fox Point, and in Cape Verdean bars along North Main Street just outside of downtown Providence. The host of virtually all of these events was Joe Livramento, a fine musician and entertainer who was a lifelong friend and fellow sideman of Gonsalves in the Phil Edmunds and Sabby Lewis Orchestras, both of which were superb New England based jazz bands strongly influenced by musicians of Cape Verdean heritage. It was at one such event where I ran into Mrs Netto once again and asked if I could speak to her about her brother for an article in a school magazine.

“Even with everything that happened,” Mrs Netto told me, “I have to feel happy about his life. I mean, what he always told me was what he wanted in life was to play the saxophone and see the world…and that’s exactly what he did.” Mrs Netto lived on the top floor of one of the frame duplexes that lined Pawtucket’s main streets. She was a short handsome looking woman with jet black hair and a skin hue, almost precisely between black and white, which seemed common to American Cape Verdeans and was probably the origin of her brother’s nickname in the Ellington Orchestra – “Mex”. Life had not gone easily for her. She was no longer with her husband (I do not know if it was through death or separation) and was a single mother raising a teen aged son while working as a secretary for the city government. Still, despite the adverse circumstances, she was, by nature, friendly and had nothing but affection for her brother. “I’m really not sure what to tell you about him,” she said as she motioned for me to sit in one of the stuffed chairs. “I mean I’ve been thinking about it all day and I want to talk about him, I really do. But, when you know someone all your life you never really think you’ll have to describe the way he was. And, you know, the last couple of years have been hard. My mother died eight months before Paul and with Paul gone I don’t have many people left in the world.

“I really believe he could have done anything he wanted to. He was a great athlete in high school and a wonderful artist. They offered him a scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design, but he loved the saxophone…When did he take it up? Well, I’m not sure. Actually he started out on guitar. My father taught Paul and my brother Joe how to play and they used to practice around the house. Joe was about five years older than Paul and he had a big head start. But in no time Paul caught up with him and when Joe would get frustrated trying to play something, Paul would just smile and say, “Here, Joe, do it this way.’ And then Paul would do it just right. It was so natural for him. “When he was in high school he got into a group, a trio I think it was, and he played the guitar. After a while, though, he started walking around the house and pantomime playing a saxophone. My father couldn’t figure it out. So finally he asks one of the guys in the trio about what’s going on, and one of them tells him ‘you know, Mr Gonsalves, Paul wants a saxophone in the worst way.’ You see, we weren’t well off, and Paul was too embarrassed to come right out and ask for it. My father, though, he saved up and one day he came home with a fifty dollar tenor saxophone. It was really a pretty ratty thing, I mean it was only fifty dollars, but Paul used to take it apart and polish it and before long it looked pretty good. I was always afraid he would ruin it by taking it apart like that. But Paul would just look at me and smile and say, ‘Sis, do you think I would take it apart if I didn’t know how to put it back together?

“After a while Paul scraped up enough money to take clarinet and saxophone lessons from a man up at the Boston Conservatory named Piagetelli. He didn’t look down on jazz and Paul took from him steadily for three years. And he used to come home from his lessons and listen to solos by Coleman Hawkins, especially that famous one on ‘Body and Soul’, and Ben Webster. Then he would try to copy them and before long he could sound exactly like either of them. Anyway, after three years Piagetelli told Paul that he couldn’t teach him anything more and that he could play in any orchestra he wanted, even ones that played classical music. “Paul played in little groups around Providence before the war, but he didn’t catch on for good with a big band until he got out of the army. Then he went with Phil Edmonds’ Orchestra which played Cape Verdean music. After that he played with Sabby Lewis, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and then, finally, around 1950 I think it was, he joined Duke’s band which is what he always wanted.

“You know, we didn’t get to see him much after he joined Duke. They were always on the road and Paul wasn’t much of a letter writer. But, it was so nice when he came into town. He would bring a friend from the band to stay at our place, it was usually Ray Nance, and they were always so glad to get off the road for a while, to eat a home cooked meal. The whole thing used to give my mother such a thrill. She couldn’t believe Paul had become so famous. She was always afraid that he would do something bad and Duke would fire him or that something would happen to Duke and Paul would be out of a job. “My brother Joe has the family scrapbook, but I was searching around for things that I thought might be interesting and then I remembered something.” Mrs Netto got up and went into the kitchen. A few seconds later she returned with a brown manila envelope. She pulled an eight by eleven inch photograph out of the envelope. The picture was a straight on shot of Gonsalves standing before the microphone caught in mid-solo, obviously at a live concert, one of the best I had ever seen before or since. He was staring straight at the audience with his lips pursed tightly around the reed and the instrument held tight angling from his mouth to his right hip. “A priest, a man named Father Pocock, took this picture when the band was in Montreal. He came down to Long Island for Paul’s funeral and said that he would send this to me. Usually you don’t expect people to follow through on things like that, but he did and I’m grateful to him. It’s the only picture I have of Paul playing.

“You have no idea what it was like for me to see Paul play. I mean, he was always my favorite brother, he was closest to me in age, and how many sisters ever got to hear their own brother play a number for them with the Duke Ellington Orchestra backing him up. There was one time, just a few years ago, when my mother and I went and saw Paul when the band was playing at a nightclub in Providence…Smithfield’s or something like that. Paul had left tickets for us, and Duke told the owners to give us dinner on the house. Duke came and sat with us after the first set… he was very witty and was always teasing. It was wonderful. “Anyway, at the start of the next set Duke announced that ‘Paul Gonsalves will now play Happy Reunion. And ladies and gentlemen, this is a happy reunion because in the audience tonight are Paul Gonsalves’ mother and his sister Mrs Julia Netto.’ And Paul played it and it was so pretty, such a happy tune. She paused at the memory and then her voice lowered to almost a whisper. “I know he did things he shouldn’t have. I’ve heard of those things and I think even my mother knew…but the things he did that were bad…he only hurt himself.”

And there it was again, the difficult, sinister side of Gonsalves’ life that inevitably pushes forward in any discussion of his work, even among those who loved him. That side became all too clear in the last years of the Ellington Orchestra’s weary journey from Rhodes on the Pawtuxet to the triple wake at Walter B. Cooke, as the physical impact of long term alcohol and heroin abuse showed itself in Gonsalves’ appearance, and as the instances when he was simply incapable of taking or staying in his place on the bandstand piled up. John Updike, in describing the genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald, referred to his talent as “an impulse from above which burned out the wire.” So it was with Gonsalves, but as sympathetic as Mrs Netto was to her brother’s troubles, the look in her eyes that evening told me something that I came to understand more clearly in the arc of years since---that the impact of self destructive acts always extends beyond the intended target. “There’s one more thing I want to show you,” she said while she stepped across her living room and pulled out an album. “This is something Paul did long ago when he was with Phil Edmonds. Its just one number, they named it ‘Song of Paul’. Its authentic Cape Verdean music… they call the style ‘morno’.” She put the record on the turntable and a minute later we could hear Gonsalves’ tenor dancing over the melancholy theme stated by the trumpets and then slowing and taking on the familiar fluffy dirty sound with the last few notes almost whispered through the instrument. The rhythms resembled Brazilian samba, and structurally it seemed close to American blues, but it was different than both. The music spoke of dispossession and separation and the effort to survive both, and every aspect of Gonsalves’ attack into the melody gave notice of his later approach to the great Ellington/Strayhorn ballads like “Chelsea Bridge” and “Warm Valley”.

“I’ll tell you,” said Mrs Netto softly, “I think that I’m all adjusted to the fact that Paul’s gone and then I listen to something like this and I have to start all over again. It’s like when I was in the supermarket the other day. I could have sworn that the back round music they were playing was one of Paul’s recordings. I stopped and listened to it and could just see him playing. And then I realized he was gone, that I would never see him again and, you know, I almost went to pieces right there. I tell myself I shouldn’t mourn. He got to travel and to play for Duke…but when I listen to the music thinking like that doesn’t seem to work, it just doesn’t work at all.”

Those words were spoken to me over thirty three years ago in the fall after Gonsalves died. In the years since, every one of the musicians on the bandstand at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet in 1972 has passed on, and Gonsalves’ sister died just last fall. Still, Gonsalves remains an enormously compelling figure and has never been forgotten either by the Cape Verdean community or the jazz world at large. Part of this is due simply to his achievements as a musician--- the Newport solo is probably the most famous passage in jazz history and his passionate renditions of Ellington/ Strayhorn masterpieces grow more impressive with time. But, sadly, another aspect of his memory is the dramatic day to day contradiction between his creative power and his ongoing compulsion to destroy his health and life.

Throughout the 1970s the remnants of the Cape Verdean community in Fox Point were gradually ingested by the expansion of Brown University. By the end of the 1970s virtually the only vestige of the old neighborhood was a bar called “Manny Almeida’s Ringside Lounge” which advertised itself as the place “where the leading sports figures of the world meet”. One of the house celebrities who occasionally showed up to chat with friends was the great lightweight boxer, George Araujo, a Fox Point native. Araujo lost a heartbreaking bout for the World Lightweight Championship on a night in 1953 when, according to the patrons at Manny’s, he was forced to fight with an infected foot. Araujo was a gentle soft spoken man who took up painting in later life, and on a bright afternoon shortly before a Memorial Day weekend some thirty years ago displayed his work along a fence outside of the bar. Araujo was knowledgeable of jazz and an admirer of Paul Gonsalves. “When the record of his number at Newport came out you could walk up and down this street,” he said while pointing up Wickenden Street, “and hear it playing out of an open window from every other flat. People were quite proud… You know he was a nice man, he liked to talk to kids and if you were his friend he’d do anything for you.

“I don’t know why he did some of the things he did. I’m sure it’s not how he wanted it. But, when he was right time stood still while he was playing, and he took you on a journey…maybe to New York, maybe to LA, or sometimes all the way across the sea back to Cape Verde. That’s a special thing and, by God, I don’t care what he did to himself, no-one can ever take that from him.”