Close to forty four years ago the Duke Ellington Orchestra made an appearance in Rhode Island on a bleak November evening. I was attending a nearby college and was able to persuade several friends – one of whom had a car – to come with me to “Rhodes on the Pawtuxet” in Cranston to see the band. Unfortunately, the concert was miserably publicized – I saw a total of one advertisement in the Providence Journal — and less than twenty people found their way through the weather to attend. One of the small group in the seats that evening was Mrs Julia Netto, the sister of Paul Gonsalves, the Rhode Island native who was one of the band’s last true stars.
I had no way of knowing it at the time, but the orchestra had approximately 18 months left to work under Ellington’s direction. But, even in its weakened and weakening state it was still great, and it played well for the small group of die-hard fans who showed up, some of whom were there to say hello to Gonsalves, and others who were aspiring musicians. Gonsalves appeared fit that evening and was given more than his normal allotment of solo work, which he handled masterfully. I managed to strike up a conversation with Mrs. Netto who was happy to discuss her brother’s great achievements. A couple of years later after Gonsalves passed on (within two weeks of Ellington’s death) I interviewed her for an article eventually published in a Rhode Island magazine in which she recounted her recollections of her brother’s family life and training as a saxophonist.
The magazine went under several years later and I had little reason to think of the evening for another thirty years. Then jazz blogs started to appear on the Internet, including one devoted to Gonsalves administered by an Englishman named Alex Dunford. I mentioned the old article to him and he posted it on his website. That triggered various communications with people who had known Gonsalves and with that the idea of the play came into being.
Patricia Willard, a friend and co-member of the DC Duke Ellington Society, referred me to an article she had written for Downbeat which described the Ellington Orchestra’s appearance at the University of Wisconsin in 1972 at which the sidemen, including Gonsalves, made presentations to “Master Classes” of students. That article along with interviews of Mrs. Netto and, later, Gonsalves’ step daughter were the raw material for Paul Gonsalves on the Road.
In “Sideman” Warren Leight wrote of an era in which the members of the major jazz orchestras were as well-known as the starting lineups of major league baseball teams. No jazz orchestra had as many famous soloists or was built more along the personalities and special talents of its members as Ellington’s, and managing the internal conflicts and foibles of his musicians required as much effort and skill from the Duke as composing or arranging. However, Gonsalves was a special case in a world of special cases, and the ongoing conflict between his immense creative talents and skills – which had propelled the orchestra into a new ascendency at Newport in 1956 – and his multiple weaknesses were well known to those who followed the band and were a growing source of frustration and exasperation for Ellington by the time the band settled in for its week-long stay in Madison.
A version of Paul Gonsalves on the Road was first performed at the Fringe in 2012. Since that time, tapes of some of the presentations from the band’s stay in Wisconsin have become available which provide further insight into the week’s drama. And, with a couple of productions at the Fringe under my belt to learn from, it is my hope the writing is tauter and more focused.
However, as we approach the sixtieth anniversary of the band’s historic performance at Newport, the play remains an effort to preserve the unique world of the Ellington Orchestra in its final years through the eyes of one if it’s most talented and troubled members.
Art Luby has written two plays performed as part of the Fringe Festival. The first was Paul Gonsalves on the Road in July of 2012; the second was Sage of Blackwell, produced in 2014. The D.C. Playwright’s Forum sponsored several public readings of other plays including Medal of Honor and On Michigan Avenue over the past five years. Mr. Luby has been a labor attorney representing trade unions throughout his professional career and is presently a counsel and negotiator for the Air Line Pilots Association. He is married to Cynthia and they have two grown children.
Paul Gonsalves on the Road
July 10 — July 24, 2016
Logan Fringe Arts Space
1358 Florida Ave NE
Washington, DC 20002
Show details and tickets