Paul Gonsalves on the Road

    A play in one act by Arthur Luby

Characters (in order of appearance):

Paul Gonsalves

Mercer Ellington

Duke Ellington



Young Paul

Shop owner


Young Saxophonist

By: Arthur Luby

Copyright:  January 2013

The scene opens on an empty microphone. Immediately after an allusion on piano to “Chelsea Bridge” Paul Gonsalves steps to the microphone 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 here in Madison, Wisconsin, Paul also has many friends in this lovely city and it is apparent to me that they have celebrated a Paul Gonsalves night upon our arrival… And ladies and gentlemen, I suspect that at the conclusion of his emotional and, I am sure, appropriately liquid reunion with his friends, Paul provided his hosts 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 and otherwise enhance the aura of romance this evening I will now call upon Paul to assume his customary 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 stroll among you. And in honor of his reunion with his friends consummated with the gift of his tie he will play, of course, “In a Sentimental Mood.”

Ellington strikes the opening chords to “In a Sentimental Mood”. Paul wipes his brow with a hankerchief and, as called for in the routine, plays while strolling across the front of the stage. The playing is, at first, barely audible and contrasts uncomfortably with the immense effort which accompanies it.  However, as Paul continues to walk unsteadily his playing gains force and the lines of the melody can, at last, be made out. Unfortunately, as indicated by the maestro, the number requires him to stroll among the audience while playing, and he disappears stage right to attempt do so. The clatter of chairs and other noises can be heard, indicating he has met with a mishap of some sort while descending into the audience

The rhythm section falls silent and a man holding a trumpet crosses the stage to help Paul. He is Mercer Ellington, a tall, thin, balding man in his fifties. He grabs Paul's arm and pulls him back on stage into a vertical position and tries to straighten his jacket. Someone from offstage hands Paul his instrument and, as Mercer looks on -- first in horror and then exasperation-- Paul begins playing “Rosetta”.  Duke Ellington steps forward from off stage and as he glares at Paul with his arms folded, the bassist and drummer pick up the beat and make the best of it as the scene fades out.                      

Scene 2

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.  I simply refuse to deal with it anymore.  A beautiful setting with a full house in the state capital…ruined. This was to have been a great evening for our orchestra and instead it was an embarrassment…because of you.

Mercer: Pop…

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…will I ever be able to call for you to solo without wondering whether you're awake to hear me?

Mercer: It's a disease, Pop.

Ellington: And I just 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 have 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:  It was all useless. 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 the most, Paul.  It's not you, because I refuse to worry about you anymore. What bothers me is that I am sure 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:  Well, they may remember him playing “Happy Go Lucky Local” when you sent him back to the microphone.

Ellington: If they do, they'll also remember how he started playing “Ramona” when he should've been playing “In a Sentimental Mood”.

Mercer: He was playing “Rosetta”.

Ellington: “Rosetta”, “Ramona” … Neither of them is in our book.

Mercer: And I am sure that someone will remember him playing “Happy Reunion” during the encore… and, like or not, that was the best solo of the night… He's still a star. He has been since Newport. And he's the only one we have left.

Ellington: Reflects for a beat and then shakes his head No, No…people have been holding Newport over my head for seventeen years. It's 1973 and I've been on the road for fifty years. I don't care about Newport anymore. I will not have this. Get out of here and go home, Paul. I will not let you destroy my orchestra.

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.

Paul looks up at Mercer who suppresses a laugh and the scene fades out.

Scene  3

Before the scene comes up several choruses of “Happy Go Lucky Local” on tenor are heard. A younger Gonsalves is sitting behind a bandstand in concert clothes with a towel draped around his shoulders. He is approached by Mercer.

Mercer: How many choruses did you take tonight on “Diminuendo”?

Paul: I don't know for sure….someone counted sixty seven.

Mercer: Sixty seven…you're going to flame your butt out if you keep doing that.

Paul: A guy made me mad…told me he thought the Newport album was faked…so I did it twice as long tonight.

Mercer: You don't need to prove yourself to every drunk that yells at you from the back of the hall.

Paul: I've been doing this number every night for years. I'm tired of it, Mercer.  When we did it at Newport it was a solo. Now it's a routine.

Mercer: Listen my friend… like it or not, that number made you a star. And as long as people keep buying the album and calling for it, you're going to play it.

A thin young man approaches the two musicians.

Mercer: Is there something you want?

Young Man: New England accent I was looking for him to sign this.

Mercer: Who is him?

Young Man: Paul Gonsalves.

Mercer takes LP and looks at it for a beat and chuckles.

Mercer: Handing album to Gonsalves  You mean, Paul Gonsalves “The Hero of the Newport

Jazz Festival”. You ever see a more beat up copy of “Ellington at Newport”?

Paul: Where'd you get this, man?

Young Man: I looked all over for it. I had to drive all the way to New Bedford to find a copy.

Paul: Looks at album I hope you didn't have to pay much.

Young Man: I didn't buy it. The man gave it to me…because I'm a saxophonist.

Mercer: You play the saxophone?

Paul: Of course he does, look at the back of his neck…To the young man You should wear a something with a collar when you play, otherwise the strap will rub your neck raw. Do you have a group?

Young Man: Yeah…except people want us to play R and B.  But, we sneak some jazz in, and we can do “Things Ain't”… and I'm working on “Night Train”.

Mercer: We don't play “Night Train” …we play “Happy Go Lucky Local”. Sneaking those numbers in…I'm afraid that's what the music scene is coming to.

Paul: Do you play every day?

Young Man: I try to.

Paul: No…you have to. Even if it's for just a half hour. You can never lose the feel of

the instrument because once you do you're lost and you have to find your way back…You


Young Man: Surprised by Gonsalves' intensity I understand.

Paul: Takes pen from Mercer Where do you want me to sign?

Mercer: Sign on top of the liner notes, you never liked them.

Young Man: Why's that?

Paul:  I played five minutes without stopping that night backed by the best beat a man could have, and the liner notes say that the star of the show was a fellow hitting a chair with a news- paper somewhere off stage.

Young Man: I didn't read the notes.

Paul signs the back of the album

Paul: Who do you listen to?

Young Man: Besides you?

Paul: You can't just listen to me.

Young Man: I like Getz, and Desmond… and Sonny Stitt.

Paul: Good men.

Young Man: I can sound like each of them and I learned some of their numbers. But, I tried to play that Diminuendo number along with the record and I couldn't stay with you… I'd give anything to be able to stay on top of the beat for that long. Just give me one number like that one…one that people remember. That's all I'd ever need.

Mercer and Paul sigh and are silent for a beat

Paul: You go on now… Keep playing and I'll be looking for you.

Young Man: Thanks man.  I'll be there…I know I will.

The young saxophonist leaves.

Mercer: Think we'll hear of him one day?

Paul:  I don't know if he can play. But, even if he can I don't know what will come of him. I've seen some great saxophonists disappear into the night.

Mercer: I've seen all kinds of people that played all kinds of instruments give up and go home, especially these days.

Paul: The saxophone is different.  My teacher used to say that the saxophone is a bastard instrument. Actually, he said it was a “bastarda” instrument…ull É because he was an Italian gentleman, you know…  And he was right.  It's not a classical instrument. It's not an instrument for pop or rock and roll. There's no place it really belongs…it or the people that play it.

Mercer: Well, I know one place where you both belong…right here. The jazz orchestra is the home of the saxophone.


Scene 4

A chorus of “Chelsea Bridge” is heard on saxophone before the scene opens on a small office. Paul is sitting in a stuffed chair holding his instrument. He is not conscious and is still in the concert clothes he wore the previous evening. Another man is sitting in a wooden chair behind a large desk covered by an assortment of books and papers.   The man sitting at the desk is dressed in tweed type clothing typically associated with an academic. Mercer Ellington, now dressed in dark slacks and a sports coat, enters the room.

Mercer: Looking down on Paul and shaking his head. Well, what do we have here, Professor?

Geoffrey: Thank God you've come, Mercer. He walked into to my office… a full hour early, you know… told me he was ready to give his lecture, blew a nice little riff on his horn, and then sat down and fell asleep.  I can't get him up and class starts in less than an hour.

Mercer: Raises Paul's arm C'mon man, you've got to get yourself up. All these college kids are coming to hear you talk about yourself and my man the Professor here has told them you're a hell of a musician.

Paul raises his head, grunts, and then falls back into the chair.

Mercer: Dammit Paul, I'm serious. You're going to embarrass yourself… again… Damn you, you stink like the devil.  Where have you been?

Paul: Without rising Fishing.

Mercer: What?

Paul: Slowly sits up  Fishing, man…in the lake back there.

Geoffrey: Lake Mendota?

Paul: I don't know… the one with the water.

Mercer: You didn't even change your clothes.

Paul: That must be why I didn't catch anything…I wasn't dressed right.

Paul sits back and returns to a semiconscious state. Mercer puts his hand on his shoulder and sighs.

Mercer: My God, Paulo, what did you do to yourself this time?

Geoffrey: I truly appreciate you coming to sub for him. I didn't have the slightest idea what to do if he couldn't speak.

Mercer: Even if he comes to, who knows how long he'll last. I've seen him nod off mid riff many a night.

Geoffrey: 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? My God, when did that happen?

Mercer: Right after last night's concert.

Geoffrey: But, why?

Mercer: Weren't you at the concert?

Geoffrey: Of course I was. Duke could see the condition he was in.  Why did he call for him to take that strolling number?

Mercer: That's a tried and true strategy. Let him walk it off… and when he walks and plays enough he's alright. But, not last night. By God, I was afraid he fell on that little old lady in the first row.

Geoffrey: That wasn't any old lady…it was the Governor's mother. He just missed her. It could have been a real disaster.

Mercer: It was disaster enough, Professor. You know, I'm used to all kind 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 on stage. I've learned to deal with all of it so long as the music was played right and it stayed in the family. When it gets into the audience…shakes head… Duke just won't put up with that.

Geoffrey: But, after all he's done for Duke. Those ballads, the solo at Newport…

Mercer: Those cards have been played for seventeen years, Geoffrey, and now they're played out. It doesn't work anymore. He's finished.

A female voice can be heard from offstage.

Voice of Girl: Is he alright?

Mercer: You don't need to worry about him, young lady.

Voice of Girl: Do you think you could have him sit up? I came to draw his picture.

Mercer: Into Paul's ear  You hear that? Sit up man, she wants to draw your picture.

Voice of Girl: It's for the school paper. I drew a picture of Mr. Ellington last night at the concert.

Paul sits up.

Paul: Woozy My daughter used to draw my picture.

Mercer: Which daughter?

Paul: Colette did…I was once an artist myself, you know, and I taught her to draw.  She was just a little thing back then, but she could get around… And she liked to draw me…What are you doing here, baby?

Colette: Appears from off stage wearing jeans and a tee shirt. Same voice as girl speaking from outside the classroom. Mercer and Geoffrey fade from view. She hands Gonsalves a picture. I hope you like it. I drew it when we were on the band bus together.

Paul: When was that, Colette?

Colette: Don't you remember, Daddy?  Last summer… when I went to see you play in New

Haven and you let me ride back to New York with the guys.

Paul: Struggling to remain conscious, almost falling forward. He fingers his saxophone. Did you like our music?

Colette: I love the music.  I don't always understand it… but I always like it when you play…except, I worry. I don't want you to make mistakes and I can never figure out what tune you're playing until you're almost done… There was something you played in New Haven… it was slow and pretty. When you were playing it seemed like a happy song, but when you were done I felt sad.

Paul: Puts the saxophone to his lips and plays the opening bars of “Happy Reunion”. Is that the tune you mean?

Colette: Yes…that was it.

Paul: You ran away from home to see us, didn't you?

Colette: I did not.

Paul: Yes you did. That's what your mama said.

Colette: Wanting to get out of the house isn't running away.

Paul: That's how I used to see things, but you're way too young to be on the road, little lady.  Don't you like home?

Colette: The only time being home is fun is when you're there…But, I don't think you like to come home.

Paul: That's not so, Colette.

Colette: Yes it is… I saw it in your face, daddy.  Just as soon as we came through the tunnel into New York. You looked so sad.

Paul: I like it when you call me daddy.      

Colette: You're the only daddy I've known. I don't know who my real father is.

Paul: I always thought that was a shame.

Colette: Everyone says it's for the best. They say he wasn't much.

Paul: It doesn't matter now.  I adopted you. I'm your father.

Colette: Don't fall asleep, daddy.

Paul: But, I'm tired, baby.

Colette: If you're tired you should come home.

Paul falls back and Colette disappears. Paul is again in the office with Mercer and Geoffrey by his side.

Geoffrey: Did he call me baby?

Mercer: No, I believe he was talking to me. I'm younger than you, Geoffrey.

Mercer shakes Paul

Mercer: Wake up, Paul. People are waiting on you.

Paul: Where am I, man?

Mercer: You're home, brother… You're on the road. (Paul nods and fades off, again. Mercer tries unsuccessfully to extract the saxophone from Paul's hands and then shakes his head)  That's one thing about him. I've seen him nod off on stage, and once or twice he's even fallen off his chair, but no matter what, he always holds on to that saxophone. Letting go of that horn is like letting go of life… but, he is going to have to let loose of it. And 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 that horn half as well…do you have a phone I can use, Professor?

The Professor nods and the two men walk off stage, and as the scene fades Paul plays several bars of “Happy Reunion”.



Scene 5

A very thin teenager wearing a letter jacket is standing near a garbage can. It is a cold late fall evening and the only sources of light are street lamps and a neon sign from a nearby shop. A middle aged man with skin hue almost matching that of the teenager, but in a tie and shirtsleeves comes on to the stage to confront the boy. He is holding a battered tenor saxophone.

Shop owner: Hey you.

The boy starts to run off.

Shop owner: Don't you go anywhere.

Paul: I'm not doing anything.

Shop owner: Why are you always hanging around here? I see you out here damn near every day. I'm starting to think you're casing the place… You better not be part of some gang.

Paul: I'm not…I don't run with gangs.

Shop owner: So what's your business, boy?

Paul: Hesitates I just like the instruments. I like looking at them.

Shop owner: Holding up saxophone Like this one?

Paul: That's the one I like.

Shop owner: I thought so. Do you know how to play it?

Paul: Just what they taught me in band class…  I don't have a saxophone. I play on the ones the school lets me try.

Shop owner: Do you know how to read music?

Paul: Sure I do.

Shop owner: Who taught you?

Paul: My father and my brother taught me on on guitar. That's the only instrument we have in our house. I don't know anyone who has enough money to buy a real saxophone. Do you know how to play it?

Shop owner: Yes I do… This is my saxophone, young man…at least until I sell it. People look down on the saxophone. You should know that.   But, to me it's the king of the wind instruments. And if you know how to play it you have the keys to the kingdom. You can bend notes all kinds of ways and make any tune sound the way you want.

Paul: If I had that horn, I'd never let it go.

Shop owner: You wouldn't, huh? Well, try making a living with it some time.

Paul: Did you play it for people?

Shopowner: I once did… 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… “Rosetta, my Rosetta, In my heart dear there's no-one but you.”  Stops singing, takes the cover off the mouthpiece of the instrument and readies himself to blow.

Paul: Interrupting I know that song.

Shopowner: Everyone knows that song. It's Fatha Hines' number.

Paul: My brother and I heard Lunceford singing it at the Rhodes Ballroom, and then they opened a curtain and there was his orchestra with Willie Smith out front, and he played it, but he did it different than the way you sang it.

Shop owner: How'd he do it?

Paul: Let me see your horn.

The man hands Paul the saxophone and he blows several scales.

Shopowner: That ain't “Rosetta”.

Paul: I know that. Give me a chance.

Paul then begins to play the same opening chorus to “Rosetta” as the man, but at an edgier up tempo pace. After the first chorus he attempts a chord changes, but then loses his way and can't come back to the melody. He stops.

Shopowner: You got a little ahead of yourself, son.

Paul: I was trying to do it like Willie did… There was a spot where he grabbed that tune and took off with it, and he was flying over the band and everyone in the building.  … It was like he broke through everything holding him down and even just sitting in the audience listening and pretending I was him, I had that feeling.

Shop owner: You got a ways to go before you can do that kind of thing. It's not hard to take off… you have to know how to land… You interested in this horn?

Paul: How much?

Shop owner: Fifty nine dollars.

Paul: I don't have that.

Shop owner: No, I expect you've never seen fifty dollars.

Paul: It's a lot of money.

Shop owner: Not for a saxophone. It's a cheap price for a saxophone.

Paul: I know that. It's a good price, I just don't have it.

Shop owner: Well, maybe if you bring your mother or father around we can talk about it…Why don't you try that number again, just slower. And stay in the same key.

Paul plays the first chorus of “Rosetta” again, this time more carefully and in the same tempo as the man. The playing is clean and hard.

Shopowner: Well now, we may have a player here. He begins to sing as Paul plays “Rosetta, my Rosetta, In my heart dear there's no-one but you…  For you told me that you loved me. Never leave me for somebody new.”

Paul and the man step apart and Paul sits back down in the chair in the Professor's office. He picks up the saxophone on his chest, blows a complex arpeggio, and then performs a chord change, and works into the same uptempo chorus of “Rosetta” that he had failed at years before. The light comes on and Geoffrey and Mercer return to the room.

Geoffrey: I knew I heard him playing. I think he's coming around.

Paul has reverted to a semi conscious state.

Mercer: Doesn't look very lively to me. I think you were hearing things.

Geoffrey: No… I don't hear things. Not imaginary saxophones.

Paul: Slurred We had Willie Smith in the band for a time, didn't we?

Mercer: Yes we did, Paul. You know that. You were with us then.

Paul: He was a hell of a player.

Mercer: Yes he was.

Paul: Why did we let him go?

Mercer: You know why. Johnny Hodges came back.

Paul: That wasn't right. Duke should have given me notice instead. It would have saved us both a lot of trouble.

Mercer: What would have become of you then?

Paul: I could have gone home to my family.

Mercer: What home? What family? You didn't have a wife back then, at least not one I knew about.

Paul: No, but I had a son, you know.

Mercer: I know it now, but I didn't know back then. You didn't talk much about him in those days.

Paul: No, I didn't.

Mercer: If we had let you go instead of Willie you wouldn't have had the chance to play at Newport.

Paul: So?

Mercer: That would have been a shame. Duke always said that after you were done playing at Newport in 56 he was reborn. You should never forget that.

Paul: Well, maybe I was reborn at Newport along with him…but, sometimes I feel like I died there too… or should have…voice tails off …like one of those bugs that's born, spawns, and drowns in the lake, all in twenty four hours…and leaves just enough of itself so there's a next generation.

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