Picture this: It’s the early 1970s and you’re in your 50s. Decades of hard playing and hard living have finally caught up with you.
You’ve been blowing your saxophone for years, and besides a few standout moments, you have reluctantly taken a seat under someone else’s shadow. And yet, there are still others who want to know your story. What do you say? How do you explain you life?
That is where longtime Duke Ellington band member and saxophonist Paul Gonsalves found himself when he was tasked with sharing his life at a college seminar in the early 1970s. The moment is now illustrated in Arthur Luby’s play, “Paul Gonsalves on the Road,” which makes its world premiere Saturday at this year’s Capital Fringe Festival at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church.
Set near the end of Gonsalves’ life, Luby taps into the musician’s worry of being center stage — both in school and with the band — as his future lays unclear.
Luby, who works days as a labor lawyer, has been writing for about 15 years. This play is the first of his works that will be performed in public.
The play was inspired by an article Luby came across in Downbeat Magazine that chronicled Gonsalves’ visit to Madison, Wis., with the band in 1973. They were in town for a week of performances, but Gonsalves, who had been in poor health for a number of years, wasn’t quite up to the task.
While there, Gonsalves, who died in 1974 at 53, gave “one of the few long-term discussions of his life,” to a group of college students, says Luby, That, coupled with his erratic performance during his appearance with the orchestra, served as the perfect mold for Luby to explain the relationship between Ellington and Gonsalves, which he says was often tumultuous.
“The two major conflicts in the play are of course whether or not he’s going to be able to pull himself together to make his presentation [to the students], and . . . whether Ellington is going to forgive him one more time, which in fact he always did,” Luby said of Gonsalves’ timidity.
To play the role, Luby would need to find a man that could both act and play the saxophone: Enter Davey Yarborough, who also works at Duke Ellington School of the Arts as the chair of instrumental music.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s a welcome challenge,” said Yarborough. “I listened to it because I just loved the interaction between the two saxophone players. They were different, but they worked together very well.”
“Playing Gonsalves . . . you’re portraying someone that’s recollecting his life along with attempting to recreate some of the solos- that’s a tall order,” Luby said of Yarborough’s demands.
Arguably the most notable solo of Gonsalves’ career was performed at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, where he played “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” a solo that created so much buzz that it reenergized Ellington’s career and was a bookmark moment for Gonsalves.
“Ellington used to say he was reborn at Newport in 1956,” said Luby. “There was a very interesting and unusual mixture of gratitude and frustration from Ellington’s perspective. He understood the major role that Gonsalves played in resurrecting the reputation and popularity of the band through that solo.”
“He was revered for that concert because it was so unique,” said Yarborough.”But he didn’t get the same type of recognition that a John Coltrane or a Charlie Parker would get.”
“Where he didn’t have that type of a name, he was definitely a name worth knowing.”
“Paul Gonsalves on the Road” will begin a five-show run starting July 21 at 2 p.m.at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church. Tickets are $17 and can be purchased online. For more information visit capfringe.org.