Paul Gonsalves holds a place in the pantheon of jazz artist heroes for the brilliant performance he gave at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. Fortunately it was recorded and is immortalized in what has become Duke Ellington’s best-selling album of all time, Ellington At Newport 1956.
As the story is told, Gonsalves had quite a number of friends and family in the audience and he and the ”Duke” conspired to give Paul a late night solo which has become famously known as “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” It was a thrilling performance and Gonsalves himself apparently underwent a peak experience as a jazz musician in which he felt as though he were flying above and all around the audience, being completely at one with them and, at the same time, completely free within himself.
Unfortunately, the performance became so well known that Gonsalves, as a long-time member of Ellington’s great jazz ensemble, was compelled either to repeat it or talk about it endlessly through the years. He never again approached the dizzying heights of that brilliant improvised playing in 1956 such that it literally became a yoke around his neck – a burden from which he was never able to extricate himself. He was forever branded as the “hero” of the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival and condemned to being approached by aspiring saxophonists completely frustrated in their attempts to recreate his magical performance there.
Gonsalves’ story is both touching and tragic. At one point, Gonsalves quotes Ellington as having said that jazz is not so much a musical art form as it is a compulsion. For Gonsalves it was a bitter-sweet mistress that kept him firmly attached to his saxophone and a life on the road marked by substance abuse and increasingly frequent sloppy performances that eventually resulted in Ellington having to let him go.
This particular theatre piece is the result of efforts by Arthur Luby who interviewed Gonsalves’ sister after his untimely death in 1973 just a few weeks before Duke Ellington himself passed away. Mr. Luby is the author of an essay entitled: “Paul Gonsalves Remembered” and apparently has picked up a compulsion of his own. He has drawn on additional source material, in particular provided by John Fass Morton’s comprehensive account of the impact of the Newport performance recorded in “Backstory in Blue.”
Luby chooses as the centerpiece of the play a week in 1973 when the Ellington ensemble was in residence at the University of Wisconsin, and Gonsalves was invited to speak to a music class about his experience as a jazz musician. Gonsalves had embarrassed himself and the orchestra the night before and Ellington giving him his walking papers.
Material ripe for dramatization to be sure, the Gonsalves story is both touching and tragic. Unfortunately, Mr. Luby has not done it justice in this particular piece. The play is badly disjointed, jumping around from flashback to flashback as Gonsalves is slumped in a chair center stage badly hung over while the Professor who has recruited him for the class and Mercer Ellington do their best to revive him. This patchwork of flashbacks becomes disorienting and ends up being quite the opposite of what I’m sure Mr. Luby intends. Rather than establishing a strong through-line or dramatic tension, it produces a halting, sometimes jarring effect.
Davey Yarborough, a well-known and highly accomplished jazz saxophonist, delivers a strong performance as Gonsalves. He has a high-pitched, somewhat raspy quality to his voice that provides just the right touch to a character that had seen way too many late nights and smoke filled rooms and consumed more than his share of whatever was being passed around. Lena Productions was very fortunate in recruiting Yarborough, both for his musical expertise and his acting ability — which is all the more impressive when welearn it is only his second time on stage as an actor.
Yarborough playing his saxophone is the highlight of the performance. Unfortunately, it came only in bits and pieces and served mostly as cover for scene changes. Keith E. Irby does a very fine job in the pivotal role of Mercer Cunningham, Duke’s son and the one who must tell Gonsalves that he is being fired from the Ellington band.
The scenes involving Irby and Yarborough are the most compelling and believable pieces of the play. Irby as Mercer brings a quiet, controlled naturalness and a compelling ease to the character that provides a nice counterpoint to Gonsalves’ inebriated and unpredictable state. Loren Davis as Gonsalves’ step-daughter and Patrick M. Doneghy as Renell, his real-life son, also do quite well with the severely limited material. Mike Easterling as Duke Ellington is almost a clone for the great “Duke” himself but his performance fell short of the others. He appears to be self-conscious which usually results in watching an actor act rather than enjoying a character unfold.
The less than stellar playwriting was not enhanced by the direction of Andy Wassenich. Wassenich has been around a good bit and has “earned his chops” as a director. I would venture a guess that he was hamstrung by the disjointed construction of the piece, but that doesn’t excuse some of the awkward and unmotivated movement that took place. At one point during a pivotal scene between Gonsalves and Mercer, he had Gonsalves facing ¾ upstage which was very distracting if you happened to get the view of his back and shoulder rather than his face.
Disappointing would be the final word for Paul Gonsalves on the Road. There is good material and great music here. Yarborough is perfect for the role and the rest of the cast is clearly capable of delivering something special. What a shame that the writing and directing were just plain inadequate to the potential.
Paul Gonsalves on the Road has 5 performances, ending July 28, 2012, at Mountain at Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave NW Washington, DC
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