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Tue February 25, 2014

The Story of Duke Ellington's Longtime Tenor Sax Bandman

Duke Ellington was a fascinating figure—so much so that quite a number of books and shorter profiles of the man came to be during his time, and well after his passing. Writers were always peering over his shoulder, trying to get a fix on how he operated his band and made it so successful; they even attempted to poke into his personal life, which the Duke managed to keep fairly secret.

Some of the members of the Ellington band had interesting stories. Quite a number of these talented souls surely helped Ellington and the band reach the iconic level that the man and the band established for a half-century.

One of Ellington’s longtime bandsmen was tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, a young man from Boston, who had first played guitar, and later switched to saxophone. Gonsalves had played in the Count Basie Band for several years, and held a chair in Dizzy Gillespie’s band for about a year. When Ellington hired him in 1950, he said he had about $7.00 to his name.

Ellington, being a darn good musician, a great composer, and perhaps a psychologist, knew how to use the musical strengths of his bandsmen, and before long was writing material tailored to Gonsalves’ talent. Neither had a way of knowing that Gonsalves would not only be a band member for the next 24 years—but until the day he died.

The years with Ellington had their ups and downs for Gonsalves because he had a major problem with alcohol, heroin and other drugs. He often wouldn’t show up because he was in no shape to play - but Ellington kept him on the payroll, even though he had to hire a backup tenor player. Gonsalves’ ability to play heart-massaging ballads, and display leather lungs on up-tempo material, were valuable assets to the band, and with Ellington writing material to display such execution, Gonsalves, much like Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn, had become a very recognizable name in the band.

The occasion that really brought him to the fore was the Ellington Band’s appearance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. Ellington wasn’t happy with the band’s place in the schedule one evening, and some patrons had started drifting away. He called for the band to play his composition, Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, and called on Gonsalves to take the lead and just play on, hoping to excite and hold the crowd. Gonzales played a rollicking 27 choruses, and folks went literally crazy during the solo. Sam Woodyard urged Gonsalves on with drum rolls and rim shots. A blonde female patron got up and danced to excite. Others joined in the terpsichore. The place was in a frenzy.

The next day the critics hailed Ellington’s band, saying it had been reborn. If Gonsalves wasn’t already a star in the band—and in his own right—he became one overnight.

There’s no telling what a major force Gonzales might have become in jazz if not for his dependence on booze and drugs. The hard living finally took its toll in London in 1974, when Gonsalves fell very ill and passed away. Ironically, Ellington was in a hospital in the U.S., battling cancer. He was not informed of Gonzaves’ death for fear the news would worsen his condition. Duke died seven days after his star tenor player.

Adding further irony to this story is that former Ellington trombonist Tyree Glenn and Ellington lay side-by-side in the same funeral home prior to their burial. And several months after Ellington’s death, saxophonist Harry Carney, who was with the Ellington Band longer than any other member, passed away after 47 years with the band. When Ellington passed away, Carney said he had nothing else to live for.

This article is from the February 2014 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More Information.