The next time someone asks you what have Cape Verdeans ever done for America, let them know that it was a Cape Verdean-American who single-handedly revived the career of one of America’s most well-known and beloved musicians known as The Duke!
Paul Gonsalves was born on July 12, 1920 in Brockton, Massachusetts to Joao Jose Gonsalves (1889-1943) and Maria Vieira Fontes (1888-1973). Mr and Mrs Gonsalves were from Djam d’Noli, Brava, Cabo Verde and arrived in the United States in 1905 and 1913, respectively. The family lived at 50 Sprague St where Paul was the third of four children. He had two older brothers, Joseph and John and a younger sister, Julia. The family moved to 449 Mineral Springs Ave in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1930.
As children, Paul and his brothers were taught to play the guitar by their father and formed a band that played traditional Cape Verdean music. This changed when Paul was a teenager and he and his brother went to see the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra in downtown Providence. He became mesmerized by the alto saxophone and decided he was going to find a way to have his father buy him one. For weeks he bewildered his parents by pantomiming playing the saxophone around the house. When one of his friends finally let his parents know what he was doing, Paul’s father bought him a used Melody C Tenor Saxophone for $59 and insisted that Paul pay him back $1 a week until it was paid off. There’s no question his parents were true CV parents!
Paul went on to study at the Boston Conservatory of Music and he began a career playing with the Phil Edmund Orchestra and other big bands led by the likes of Duke Oliver and Henry McCoy that were dominated by Cape Verdean-American musicians, including Joe Livramento and others. But as happened to many young men in those days, his career was put on hold when he was drafted into World War II in 1942. Sergeant Gonsalves served in the Quartermaster Corp in India and Burma. When he returned home, he started playing with The Sabby Lewis Band in Boston, where he caught the eye of the one and only Count Basie. After spending a few years playing with Basie he later joined Dizzy Gillespie until he disbanded the group in 1950.
The story goes that Paul was down to his last $7 when he decided one night to head down to the Birdland in New York where, as luck would have it, he met Duke Ellington. The next day, Paul Gonsalves was playing in The Duke’s Big Band.
At the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, Paul managed to get on Duke’s bad side by missing practice and being late for the performance along with a few other musicians. The Duke’s idea of punishment took the form of having Paul play a solo to “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” and not stop. So Paul played… and played for 27 Choruses!!!! The crowd included many of Paul’s family and friends who urged him to keep going and deliver the performance of a lifetime. The Duke was back and within weeks, this recording became the Duke’s biggest selling record and he was even put on the cover of Time Magazine!
Paul Gonsalves and Duke Ellington were best friends until they died within days of each other in 1974. His life story can be seen in a stage play by Arthur Luby, called “Paul Gonsalves Life on the Road: A Play in One Act”.
I have to add that in doing research on my daughter’s paternal family tree I found that her paternal great grandfather, John Ellington, was kin to one, Edward Kennedy Ellington, also known as Duke Ellington. Since Paul Gonsalves is related to me on my maternal great-grandmother’s side, my daughter, Nia, is related to BOTH Paul Gonsalves and Duke Ellington!!!
If ya didn’t know…Now ya know!!!