Desmond, Paul (originally, Emil Breitenfeld)

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Desmond, Paul (originally, Emil Breitenfeld)

Desmond, Paul (originally, Emil Breitenfeld), alto saxophonist; b. San Francisco, Nov. 25, 1924; d. N.Y., May 30, 1977. He chose his surname at random from a telephone book. He was given the nickname ’The Stork/7 because he would stand on one leg and lean on the piano when he played. He learned the rudiments of music from his father, who played the organ for silent movies; Desmond played clarinet in the school orch. and then at San Francisco State Univ., but eventually concentrated on the alto saxophone. He named Pete Brown and Willie Smith as influences. He played clarinet in the big bands of Jack Fina and Alvino Rey He idolized Charlie Parker, but never imitated him. He interviewed Parker on Boston radio (a tape survives), and the two would play chess together; he said that the one time he beat Parker was the proudest moment of his life. Though he had been married early in life, he never remarried and gained a reputation as a ladies’ man. In 1948 he joined Dave Brubeck’s octet, staying until 1950; he rejoined Brubeck, playing with his new quartet from 1951 to 1967. In 1956 when Joe Morello joined the Quartet, Desmond, who disliked Morello’s crowd- pleasing performances, threatened to quit. Desmond stayed and, though they shared the same concert stage nearly every night, did not speak to Morello for a year. Eventually they became friends, but Desmond would often go backstage and read a book during Morello’s extended drum solo on ’Take Five/’ The group toured the world, playing 300 concerts a year, and had a Columbia recording contract that called for four albums a year. In 1959 Desmond penned the first million-seller jazz single, “Take Five/7 It became the Quartet’s theme, performed at all their concert appearances, and made Desmond a small fortune in royalties. His lyrical style and light, airy tone was liked even by people who were not Brubeck fans. In 1953 Down Beat proclaimed, “It is again a case where the sideman (in this instance Desmond) seems to be quite superior to the leader as a jazzman/’

When the Quartet split up in 1967, Desmond unofficially retired and didn’t play his horn for three years. Eventually he was coaxed out of retirement to play occasional gigs with his friends. He fronted a quartet featuring guitarist Jim Hall for two weeks at the Half Note in N.Y.C., breaking the club’s attendance record. At the New Orleans Jazz Festival he played a soaring set with Gerry Mulligan. As guest soloist he played with the Modern Jazz Quartet for a 1971 Christmas concert. He played on several albums with his long- time friend Chet Baker. When Brubeck led a group with Jack Six, Alan Dawson, and Gerry Mulligan, Desmond often joined them. He appeared with Brubeck in a series of concerts called ’Two Generations of Brubeck” in which Dave played with his sons, and in 1976, the Quartet reunited for the Silver Anniversary Tour. They were greeted with enthusiasm wherever they played but the deteriorating eyesight of Joe Morello cut the tour short. In 1975 Jim Hall talked him into playing with Ed Bickert at Toronto’s Bourbon Street club. After the first two weeks Desmond rushed back to N.Y. and talked producer Creed Taylor into flying Bickert in to record. Don Thompson, bassist on the gig, also recorded a number of the club dates, which were released. The group appeared on CBC-TV’s “Take 30,” were recorded at the Edmonton Jazz Festival, played the Monterey Jazz festival, and at a club in San Francisco called the Matador; they even closed the Matador. Desmond’s tune “Wendy,” written for these gigs, was named for the daughter of one of his old girlfriends in the San Francisco area. His last concert was with Dave Brubeck in February 1977 at N.Y.’s Avery Fisher Hall. He was only able to play the second half due to shortness of breath and took no encore. Though his drinking was legendary, it was his smoking three packs of cigarettes a day that caught up with him and he died of lung cancer. He said he was writing a humorous memoir of his years on the road with the Quartet, to be titled How Many of You Are There in the Quartet?—a question frequently asked by airline stewardesses—but he never did. Paul left his alto in his will to Dave’s son, Michael Brubeck. His Steinway piano went to Bradley’s, a small jazz club in Manhattan. Pure Desmond: The Wit & Music of Paul Desmond is a one-hour documentary film, currently in development by Paul Caulfield.


Paul Desmond (1954); Paul and Dave’s Jazz Interwoven (1954); Featuring Don Elliot (1956); Blues in Time (1957); East of the Sun (1959); First Place Again (1959); Paul Desmond and Friends (1959); Desmond Blue (1961); Late Lament (1961); Two of a Mind (1962); Glad to Be Unhappy (1963); Take Ten (1963) Bossa Antigua (1964); Summertime (1968); Bridge over Troubled Water (1969); In Concert at Town Hall (1971); Skylark (1973); Pure Desmond (1974).BRUBECK AND DESMOND : Duets (1975); Paul Desmond Quartet Live (1975; unissued titles exist); The Duets: 1975 (1975).

—Lewis Porter