Paul Gonsalves, born on this date in 1920, was a tenor saxophonist mainly known for his long association with Duke Ellington. He was born in Brockton, Massachusetts, but his parents were of Cape Verdean heritage. As a child, he and his brothers played Portuguese folk songs on guitar for family gatherings. They also played “hillbilly” and Hawaiian music. These family dates, however, became a chore and turned off the young Paul from playing music. Fortunately, he and his oldest brother, Joseph, became enamored of jazz, particularly Duke Ellington, which reignited his interest.
At sixteen, he took up the saxophone. His main early influence was Coleman Hawkins. As Gonsalves said later, “There was something in his music that coincided with Duke’s, that for me denoted class.” After serving in World War Two, Gonsalves played in the Sabby Lewis Orchestra, and then with Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie. He joined Ellington’s band in 1950 after walking up and introducing himself to the Duke at Birdland one night. He stayed for the next twenty-four years.
Gonsalves’ entire career is overshadowed by one event, his spectacular solo on Duke’s “Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue” at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, which contained an astounding twenty-seven choruses. The rather diffident Gonsalves is about the last person in the Duke’s orchestra who would crave the limelight, but this was one of the first impactful extended sax solos in modern jazz history. The crowd went wild and it was a huge comeback for Ellington. (The performance can be heard on Ellington At Newport 1956 and here is a 1958 concert version from The Netherlands that gives some flavor of the Newport date, although before a much more restrained audience.) But in addition to his more straight-ahead melodic playing with Ellington (critic Gary Giddins called his playing “all liquid rhapsody,” although I’ve always heard a somewhat rougher edge in it), Gonsalves was an inventive player throughout his career and an experimenter with tonalities on the tenor sax. This can be heard to better advantage on some of his small group recordings, such as Gettin’ Together (1961) and Tell It the Way It Is! (1963).
Unfortunately, alcohol and narcotics abuse cut Gonsalves’ life short. He died in 1974, just nine days before Duke Ellington’s death.