Last month’s Paul Gonsalves posting continues to stimulate recollections by Rifftides readers who admired the Duke Ellington tenor saxophonist. Here is another reminiscence, from a man who heard the band when neither Ellington nor Gonsalves had long to live.
I appreciate your piece on Paul Gonsalves. I recall seeing him a year and a half before he passed away at a miserably publicized and scantly attended concert at “Rhodes on the Pawtuxet” in Cranston, R.I. The Ellington band was deep into the post Hodges and Strayhorn era, but it was still great, and I recall being appalled, even embarrassed, at the size of the house. Still, some of Paul’s relatives had come across town from Pawtucket and several of the people among the two dozen or so in attendence claimed to have grown up or served in the army with him. They all talked of Paul with complete affection and were obviously proud of his accomplishments. I hope this was the reason Duke called for the “strolling saxophone” solo on “In a Sentimental Mood”, rather than for medicinal purposes you alluded to.
Gonsalves, at least while he was alive, never had the titanic reputation of his section mate Johnny Hodges or his predecessor in the tenor chair, Ben Webster– and they both, of course, were thrilling musicians. But, Gonsalves has always been my favorite of the Ellington sidemen because his ballad playing projected a special warmth and vulnerability, and his great solos –pieces like “Chelsea Bridge” and “Happy Reunion” — have a wonderful poignant edge. His playing also had a unique rhythm that was, perhaps, a product of his Cape Verdean ancestry.
The Cranston concert was only sixteen years after the great driving solo at Newport that made him famous, but his physical deterioration was evident at close range, and it was clear that he could no longer handle that sort of demand. But, “Happy Reunion” still worked, especially for those of his family and friends for whom I’m sure it was a happy reunion.
The concert was completed professionally. There was no encore and the band and customers repaired to the bar on the other side of the wall, where a friend of Paul’s had already made sure he would not have to buy drinks. Scott Hamilton, who at the time made his professional living in a rhythm and blues band which performed at various colleges in the area, took pains to secure the autograph of the entire reed section before they retreated from the bar into the November rain. Sixteen months later Paul and Duke were gone, with too many of those playing that night to follow soon after.
Gonsalves and Ellington both died in May, 1974. For other memories of Gonsalves, go here and here.