Duke Ellington said that jazz is “not an occupation or profession, it’s a compulsion.” In the biographical drama Paul Gonsalves on the Road, Gonsalves, legendary jazz saxophonist and longtime member of Ellington’s orchestra, embodies those words. On the Road chronicles the dramatic arc of a life defined by the push and pull between the beauty and destructiveness of being a professional musician.
It’s 1973, 17-years after Gonsalves’ history-making solo on “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival made him jazz royalty. The Ellington Orchestra is performing as part of a week-long residency at the University of Wisconsin. Gonsalves shows up drunk and ill-prepared, not for the first time, prompting Ellington to fire him the night before he was scheduled to give a master class on the life of a jazz musician . Will Gonsalves pull himself together before the class? Will he get his job back? How did he get here?
Paul Gonsalves on the Road
Written by Arthur Luby
Details and tickets
Told in a series of jumpy and uneven flashbacks, Paul Gonsalves on the Road follows pivotal moments in Gonsalves’ life from obtaining his first sax, to the triumph of the Newport jazz festival, and through his years of substance abuse and failed attempts at rehab. At one crossroads, given the choice of joining his already intoxicated “friends” for an after-party or taking the bus with the orchestra, Gonsalves chooses the party, explaining “I don’t like to let people down.”
But that’s exactly what he does, over and over again. From his almost non-existent relationship with his children and their mothers to his inconsistent performances and unreliability, Gonsalves leaves a path of destruction in his wake. Yet he continually chooses to live life on the road, condemning himself to relationships as ephemeral as his jazz improvisations.
At the center of this production is preeminent DC jazz saxophonist Davey Yarborough as Paul Gonsalves. His acting skills are not on par with the rest of the cast (especially the excellent Keith Irby in the key role of Mercer Ellington), but when he plays the sax you feel the soul of Gonsalves in a way that recorded music could not replicate. He is most confident and authentic as an actor in places where Gonsalves is discussing his love of jazz and the unique challenges of life of a jazz musician. Yarborough is somewhat hampered by the writing. It takes a lot skill for an actor to make exposition sound natural and bring clarity to confusing jumps in time and place.
Ultimately, I was emotionally invested in this play, flaws and all. As one of Gonsalves’ teachers told him “Music is a beautiful thing. As long as you play you’ll have beauty in your life.” But, was that beauty enough to make up for the many sacrifices Gonsalves made to be out on the road? I don’t know the answer, but I know I’ll be thinking about it for a while.
Paul Gonsalves on the Road by Arthur Luby. Directed by: Andrew Wassenich. Music Arrangements by: Wayne Chadwick. Featuring: Davey Yarborough, Keith Irby, Addison Switzer, Tony Thomas II, Evan Crump, Emma Tower. Set and Lighting Design by: Chris Holland. Sound Design by: Jess Hoover. Costume Design by: Heather Whitpan. Reviewed by: Amy Couchoud.