Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Desmond, Paul (Paul Emil Breitenfeld)

       Dave Brubeck & Paul Desmond, photo by Marcel Fleiss

Alto saxophonist and composer Paul Desmond brought a wistful air of sophistication to the “cool jazz” movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Best known for his long partnership with pianist Dave Brubeck, he also recorded memorably with guitarist Jim Hall and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. Desmond’s warm yet delicate tone was seen by some fans as a contrast to bebopper Charlie Parker’s more manic tendencies. In fact, the two saxophonists admired each other, even if each approached his instrument in his own unique way.

Paul Desmond was born Paul Emil Breitenfeld on November 25, 1924 in San Francisco, California. Desmond’s father was an organist who accompanied silent films and vaudeville acts. Desmond’s mother suffered from emotional problems and in 1929, the boy moved to New Rochelle, New York to live with relatives.

Desmond had his first musical experience while attending grammar school in New Rochelle. Desmond was given the opportunity to play an improvised solo on a marimba or xylophone. Desmond improvised, making it up as he went along. He would later say that it was one of the first things that he enjoyed doing.

Upon his return to San Francisco in 1936, Desmond began to play clarinet at San Francisco Polytechnic High School. Desmond performed with the school band, and was also editor of the school's newspaper. Desmond played some small gigs on clarinet before switching to the alto saxophone while a freshman at San Francisco State University. Desmond ultimately changed his last name to Desmond stating that Breitenfeld sounded too “Irish,” an example of his ironic sense of humor.

During his freshman year of college, Desmond was drafted into the United States Army, where he was assigned to the 253rd Army Ground Forces band in San Francisco. Desmond served three years in the military, but his unit never saw combat.

While stationed in San Francisco, Desmond met tenor saxophonist Dave Van Kreidt. Van Kreidt introduced Desmond to a fellow serviceman who played the piano, named Dave Brubeck. The three musicians jammed together, and Desmond was impressed with Brubeck's approach to music.

After World War II, Desmond returned to San Francisco State University, where he briefly studied creative writing. Before long, he had joined an octet led by Brubeck, an innovative group whose music emphasized classical elements in modern jazz. While the group was pioneering, Desmond and Brubeck decided to disband the group when they were unable to generate enough gigs to sustain the experiment.

Brubeck started performing with a trio at the Geary Cellar in San Francisco, where Desmond frequently sat in with the band. Unlike the highly organized setting of the pair’s octet, the small ensemble allowed them to improvise together without restraint. Through this ensemble Desmond and Brubeck began to build a distinctive relationship, which often generated an intuitive musical counterpoint. The remarkable musical affinity they developed is captured on a number of recordings, including "You Go To My Head" and "Over The Rainbow" from a 1952 duo recording made at Boston's Storyville club.

Desmond and Brubeck began their partnership at a club called the Bandbox in Palo Alto, California in the late 1940s. Brubeck would intentionally goad Desmond beyond his musical comfort zone, by forcing him to play more uptempo songs. Brubeck knew that pushing Desmond to play at faster tempos would encourage him to overcome his natural reserve and play with more conviction and expression.

While Desmond and Brubeck's engagement at the Bandbox was a commercial success, they fell out over personal and financial concerns. Desmond moved to New York in 1950 to perform with pianist Jack Fina on alto saxophone and clarinet. At the same time, Brubeck formed a new trio that began to receive critical acclaim. Desmond soon found out about the trio’s success and returned to San Francisco to see if he had a chance of joining his old friend’s group.

The story of how Desmond got back on Brubeck’s good side is amusing. Brubeck held a grudge against Desmond over the difficulties they had from when they last performed together. Brubeck, now married with three children, told his wife Iola that Desmond was not allowed in their home. One day, Desmond showed up at the door and Iola took him into the back yard, where Brubeck was folding diapers. Desmond pleaded with him, but Brubeck would consider hiring him back until the saxophonist offered to babysit his three children. This turned out to the offer Brubeck could not refuse.

The Brubeck quartet, with Ron Crotty on bass and Lloyd Davis on drums, soon found its niche performing for college audiences. In 1953 the quartet recorded an album, Jazz at Oberlin, which became a must have album for the college-aged crowd. On “Perdido,” Desmond and Brubeck demonstrate the beautiful interplay between their instruments which became the group's core sound Desmond is equally comfortable playing any duration of phrase, whether it is long or short. His repetition of phrases in different registers shows the witty nature of his improvisations.

The quartet followed the success of Oberlin with another live recording, Jazz at the College of the Pacific, which featured Joe Dodge on drums. Based on the strength of these albums, Columbia Records signed the quartet. Their first release for Columbia was the 1954 LP Jazz Goes to College. This release mixed cuts recorded at concerts from the University of Michigan, University of Cincinnati and a return concert at Oberlin College. The success of the group led Time Magazine to write a piece about the group in 1954, with Brubeck on the cover.

The lineup of Brubeck's group in their years at Columbia included either Norman Bates or Bob Bates on bass while Joe Dodge continued on drums. The group's now-classic lineup started to take form in 1956, when Joe Morello joined on drums and bassist Eugene Wright came on board in 1958. It was the addition of Morello on drums that allowed the quartet to experiment with different time signatures.

In 1959, the group released Time Out, one of the most successful and imitated albums in jazz history. The group constructed an album that intentionally departed from the typical 4/4 time signature common to most jazz. All seven tracks on the album featured unconventional meters, yet still emphasized the swing feel of jazz. All of the songs were written by Brubeck, except for Desmond's “Take Five,” which became a hit and is one of the most recognizable songs in the jazz canon.

On “Take Five,” Desmond's playing is remarkable for its weightless attack while still swinging in the 5/4 meter. Because of the clarity in his phrasing, Desmond’s soloing seems to have a life of its own.

During their years together, Desmond and Brubeck had a deal. If Desmond wished to record or perform without Brubeck, he could not do so with another piano player. This led to a series of memorable collaborations with guitarists, such as Jim Hall, and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. He and Mulligan can be heard on the 1957 recording of "Battle Hymn of The Republican," a witty take on the changes to "Tea for Two," while Desmond and Hall can be heard on 1963's "Take Ten."

In 1967, Brubeck broke up his quartet to concentrate on composition, and Desmond decided to take some time off. The former English major started to write a humorous memoir of his years on the road with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, to be entitled “How Many of You Are There in the Quartet?” which was a question he said he was commonly asked by airline stewardesses. Unfortunately, the book never materialized, because, as he explained it, "I could only write at the beach, and I kept getting sand in my typewriter." In truth, Desmond's womanizing and alcohol abuse were starting to take their toll, although you would never know it by listening to his crystalline, perfectly controlled playing.

Desmond returned to performing in June of 1969 when he appeared at the New Orleans Jazz Festival with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. Their appearance together garnered positive reviews from both the audience and critics. Desmond and Mulligan later shared the stage again as part of Dave Brubeck’s “Two Generations” tour in 1974.

In 1971, Desmond was invited to play the Half Note in New York by guitarist Jim Hall. In his typical humor, Desmond said that he only took the job because he “was nearby and could tumble out of bed to work.” The two men would continue to play at the Half Note, often breaking attendance records. In addition to his work with Hall, Desmond performed with The Modern Jazz Quartet for a Christmas concert in 1971.

Through Jim Hall Desmond met guitarist Ed Bickert and form the “Paul Desmond Quartet.” An ideal example of the quartet’s work is the album Pure Desmond, which was released in 1975, and features Desmond, Bickert bassist Ron Carter and drummer Connie Kay. They were also captured in a live recording at Toronto's Basin Street club, which included "Wendy," a fine example of what beauty Desmond could still create late in his career.

On Antonio Carlos Jobim's “Wave,” Desmond exhibits his comfort with the bossa nova feel by playing with his trademark lyrical phrasing. Desmond never tries to play over his rhythm section; instead he allows the voice of the saxophone to blend with the ensemble even during his solos.

Desmond reunited with Brubeck on a succession of concerts billed as “Two Generations of Brubeck,” which also included the three sons, now musicians, whom the saxophonist once babysat: Dan and Darius. In 1976, the classic Brubeck quartet reunited for a tour. Audiences were excited to hear them, but the tour ended prematurely due to the weakening eyesight of Joe Morello.

Desmond’s final public appearance was with Brubeck at Lincoln Center on February 4, 1977. His performance was received with considerable acclaim, but he was too weak to continue for the encore. Desmond suffered from cigarette and alcohol addiction throughout his adult life, and his chemical dependencies often exhausted his energy.

Desmond passed away on May 30, 1977 from lung cancer at the age of 52.

Select Discography

As Paul Desmond

Late Lament (1962)

Summertime (1968)

Skylark (1973)

Pure Desmond (1975)

Like Someone in Love (1975)

With Dave Brubeck

Jazz at Storyville (1951)

Jazz at the Blackhawk (1952)

Jazz at Oberlin (1953)

Jazz at the College of the Pacific (1954)

Jazz Goes to College (1954)

Newport 58 (1958)

Time Out (1959)

Time Further Out (1961)

Angel Eyes (1962)

Glad to be Unhappy (1963)

Jackpot! (1966)

The First Time We Saw Paris (1967)

With Gerry Mulligan

Blues in Time (1954)

Two of a Kind (1962)

With Modern Jazz Quartet

Paul Desmond and Modern Jazz Quartet at Town Hall (1971)

With Jim Hall

Concierto (1975)

Contributor: Eric Wendell