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Paul Desmond

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Title: Paul Desmond  
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Subject: Dave Brubeck, Skylark (Paul Desmond album), Schaefer Music Festival, Private Passions, Chris Potter (jazz saxophonist)
Collection: 1924 Births, 1977 Deaths, 20Th-Century American Musicians, 20Th-Century Composers, American Jazz Alto Saxophonists, American Jazz Composers, American Military Personnel of World War II, American People of Austrian-Jewish Descent, American People of Czech-Jewish Descent, American People of Jewish Descent, Composers from San Francisco, California, Cool Jazz Saxophonists, Jazz Alto Saxophonists, Jazz Musicians from San Francisco, California, Jewish American Musicians, Mainstream Jazz Saxophonists, Rca Victor Artists, United States Army Soldiers, West Coast Jazz Saxophonists
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Paul Desmond

Paul Desmond
Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, October 8, 1954
Background information
Birth name Paul Emil Breitenfeld
Also known as "The Stork"
Born (1924-11-25)November 25, 1924
San Francisco, California, United States
Died May 30, 1977(1977-05-30) (aged 52)
Manhattan, New York City, United States[1]
Genres Cool jazz, West Coast jazz, mainstream jazz
Occupation(s) Musician, composer, arranger
Instruments Alto saxophone, clarinet
Labels Columbia, RCA Victor, Horizon, CTI
Associated acts Dave Brubeck, Ed Bickert, Gerry Mulligan, Jim Hall, Chet Baker

Paul Desmond (born Paul Emil Breitenfeld; November 25, 1924 – May 30, 1977) was an American jazz alto saxophonist and composer, best known for the work he did in the Dave Brubeck Quartet and for penning that group's greatest hit, "Take Five". He was one of the most popular musicians to come out of the West Coast's cool jazz scene, and the possessor of a legendary and idiosyncratic wit.

In addition to his work with Brubeck, he led several of his own groups and did significant collaborations with artists such as Gerry Mulligan, Jim Hall and Chet Baker. After years of chain smoking and general poor health, Desmond succumbed to lung cancer in 1977 following one last tour with Brubeck.


  • Early life 1
  • Career 2
  • Dave Brubeck Quartet 3
  • Other collaborations 4
  • Personal life 5
  • Style 6
  • Discography 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Early life

Desmond was born Paul Emil Breitenfeld in San Francisco, California, in 1924, the son of Shirley (née King) and Emil Aron Breitenfeld.[2] His father was from a Jewish family from Bohemia and Austria, and his mother was Catholic; throughout his life, Desmond was unsure of his father's background.[3][4][5] His father was an organist who accompanied silent films in movie theaters. His mother was emotionally unstable throughout his upbringing. During childhood he spent years living with relatives in New York City due to problems at home. Desmond began playing violin at an early age, though his father forbade him to play it.[6]

Desmond began to study clarinet at the age of twelve at San Francisco Polytechnic High School. It was not until he became a freshman at San Francisco State College that he picked up the alto saxophone. In his first year Desmond was drafted into the United States Army and joined the Army band while stationed in San Francisco. He spent three years in the military, but his unit was never called to combat.[6]


Following the conclusion of World War II, Desmond started working in Palo Alto, California, at the Bandbox. He also worked with Brubeck at the Geary Cellar in San Francisco. Desmond soon hired Brubeck, but cut his pay in half and then replaced him altogether after taking him along to Graeagle at The Feather River Inn for gigs; this was done so Desmond could gamble in nearby Reno. In 1950 Desmond left for New York City playing alto and clarinet for Jack Fina, but returned to California after hearing Brubeck's trio on the radio.[6]

The story of their encounter is somewhat humorous. Brubeck—married with three children and holding a grudge from his earlier experience with Desmond—instructed his wife, Iola, not to let him set foot in his house. However, Desmond came to his home in San Francisco one day while Dave was out back hanging diapers on a laundry line, and Iola let him in and took him to Brubeck. Apparently all the begging in the world would not convince Brubeck to hire him, at least not until Desmond offered to babysit Brubeck's children.[6]

Dave Brubeck Quartet

Some people called him the stork—'Cause he would stand on one leg and leaned on the piano. But that... that was when he was playing great. What used to scare me is I'd look at him and it would just be whites in his eyes, wouldn't be any eyeballs.

Dave Brubeck
(PBS interview with Hedrick Smith)[7]

Desmond had first met Dave Brubeck in 1944 while still in the military. Brubeck was trying out for the 253rd Army band which Desmond belonged to. After making the cut he—unlike Desmond—was sent to war in 1944. Desmond once told Marian McPartland of National Public Radio's Piano Jazz that he was taken aback by the chord changes Brubeck introduced during that 1944 audition. After convincing Brubeck to hire him following his stint with Jack Fina, the two had a contract drafted (of which Brubeck was the sole signatory); the language forbade Brubeck from ever firing him, ensured Brubeck's status as group leader, and gave Desmond twenty percent of all profits generated from the quartet.[6][8] That is how the Dave Brubeck Quartet had its start, a group that began in 1951 and ended in December 1967. The quartet became especially popular with college-age audiences, often performing in college settings like on their ground-breaking 1953 album Jazz at Oberlin at Oberlin College, or on their recordings on the campuses of Ohio University and the University of Michigan, among others. The success of the quartet led to a Time magazine piece on them in 1954, with the famous cover featuring Brubeck's face.[9] The group played until 1967, when Brubeck switched his musical focus from performance to composition and broke the unit up. During the 1970s Desmond joined Brubeck for several reunion tours, including "Two Generations of Brubeck". Accompanying them were Brubeck's sons Chris Brubeck, Dan Brubeck and Darius Brubeck. In 1976 Desmond played 25 shows in 25 nights with Brubeck, touring the United States in several cities by bus.

Other collaborations

Playing with Desmond and Mulligan was really mind-blowing because they were such heroes for me.

Perry Robinson[10]

In June 1969 Desmond appeared at the New Orleans Jazz Festival with Gerry Mulligan, procuring favorable reactions from critics and audience members.[6] During Brubeck's Two Generations tours, Desmond and Mulligan shared the stage together in 1974. Unlike Brubeck, Mulligan personally shared much in common with Desmond. The two shared similar interests and humor, and both men had no shortage of addictions in their lives.[10]

After some time spent inactive, Desmond was asked to play the Half Note in New York City in 1971 by guitarist Jim Hall. With his special brand of humor, Desmond said that he took the job only because he was nearby and could tumble out of bed to work. The two continued to play at the club to jam-packed audiences. Desmond also joined The Modern Jazz Quartet for a Christmas concert in 1971 at the New York Town Hall.[6]

Desmond recorded the tune "Summertime" along with many others during his time with Chet Baker.

Desmond met Canadian guitarist Ed Bickert through Hall in Toronto, Canada and began performing with him at several clubs in the Toronto area. Bickert played in the Paul Desmond Quartet at the Edmonton Jazz Festival, and they recorded several albums together.

Personal life

In their private lives Dave Brubeck and his family were very close to Paul Desmond, though the two men possessed very different personalities. Darius Brubeck recalls thinking that Desmond was his uncle almost into adolescence. Desmond grew especially close to Dave's son Michael, to whom he left his saxophone upon death. Desmond also was never able to hold down steady relationships with women, though he had no shortage of them. Desmond is reported to have quipped, upon seeing a former girlfriend on the street, "There she goes, not with a whim but a banker" (a Spoonerism reference to T.S. Eliot's "This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper"). In contrast, Brubeck was a stalwart family man.[8]

I have won several prizes as the world's slowest alto player, as well as a special award in 1961 for quietness.

Paul Desmond[11]
Desmond was quite well-read and retained a unique wit. He enjoyed reading works by the thinkers of his generation like Timothy Leary and Jack Kerouac, also dabbling in some LSD usage. He was known to have several addictions, including Dewar's Scotch whisky and Pall Mall cigarettes. His chemical-dependency problems would sometimes drain him of his energy on the road. Clarinetist Perry Robinson recalls in his autobiography that Desmond would sometimes need a vitamin B12 shot just to go on playing during his later career.[10]

Pristine, perfect. One of the great livers of our time. Awash in Dewar's and full of health.

Paul Desmond[11]

Desmond died on May 30, 1977, not of his heavy alcohol habit but of lung cancer, the result of his longtime heavy smoking. Never without his humor, after he was diagnosed with cancer he expressed pleasure at the health of his liver. His last concert was with Brubeck in February 1977, in New York City. His fans did not know that he was already dying. Desmond specified in his will that all proceeds from "Take Five" would go to the Red Cross following his death. Desmond reportedly owned a Baldwin grand piano, which he loaned to Bradley Cunningham, owner of Bradley's piano bar in Greenwich Village, with the condition that Cunningham had to move the large piano back to Desmond's Upper West Side apartment to become part of Desmond's estate. After this long and expensive process, Desmond willed the piano to Cunningham, a characteristic and final prank. The Paul Desmond Papers are held at the Holt-Atherton Special Collections in the University of the Pacific Library.

Desmond was cremated and his ashes were scattered.


Desmond had a light melodic tone when playing the alto saxophone that is similar to the style of Lee Konitz, one of his influences. He was able to achieve particularly high notes, called altissimo, becoming one of the best-known players from the West Coast's cool school of jazz. Much of the success of the classic Brubeck quartet was due to the juxtaposition of his airy style over Brubeck's sometimes relatively heavy, polytonal piano work.[12] His gift for improvised counterpoint is perhaps most notable on the two albums he recorded with Mulligan (Mulligan-Desmond Quartet and Two of a Mind). He said he tried to sound "like a dry martini."

Desmond played a Selmer Super Action model alto saxophone (which was the immediate predecessor of the Selmer Mk VI) with an M. C. Gregory model 4A-18M mouthpiece—both dating from circa 1951—with Rico 3 ½ reeds.[13]


Year Album Leader Label
1950 The Dave Brubeck Octet Dave Brubeck Fantasy Records
1951 Brubeck/Desmond Dave Brubeck Fantasy Records
1951 Jazz at Storyville Dave Brubeck Fantasy Records
1951 Modern Complex Dialogues Dave Brubeck Alto Records
1951 How Long, Baby How Long, Pt. 1&2 Jack Sheedy Coronet Records
1951 The Man I Love c/w Down in Honkytonk Town Jack Sheedy Coronet
1952 Jazz at the Blackhawk Dave Brubeck Fantasy
1952 The Dave Brubeck Quartet Dave Brubeck Fantasy
1953 Jazz at Oberlin Dave Brubeck Fantasy
1953 Jazz at the College of the Pacific Dave Brubeck Fantasy
1954 Dave Brubeck at Storyville 1954 Dave Brubeck Columbia Records
1954 Jazz Goes to College Dave Brubeck Columbia
1954 Brubeck Time Dave Brubeck Columbia
1954 Gerry Mulligan/Paul Desmond Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan Fantasy
1955 Jazz: Red Hot And Cool Dave Brubeck Columbia
1955 Chet Baker Quartet Plus: The Newport Years, Vol. 1 Chet Baker Philology Records
1956 The Paul Desmond Quartet With Don Elliott Paul Desmond Fantasy
1956–57 Dave Brubeck Quartet Live in 1956-57 Featuring Paul Desmond Dave Brubeck Jazz Band
1956 Live From Basin Street Dave Brubeck Jazz Band
1956 Jazz Impressions of U.S.A. Dave Brubeck Columbia
1957 Reunion Dave Brubeck w/ Dave Van Kriedt Fantasy
1957 Jazz Goes to Junior College Dave Brubeck Columbia
1957 Dave Digs Disney Dave Brubeck Columbia
1957 Blues in Time Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan Verve Records
1958 In Europe Dave Brubeck Quartet Columbia
1958 Newport 1958 Dave Brubeck Columbia
1958 Jazz Impressions of Eurasia Dave Brubeck Columbia
1959 Gone with the Wind Dave Brubeck Columbia
1959 Time Out Dave Brubeck Columbia
1959 St. Louis Blues Dave Brubeck Moon Records
1959 First place Again! Paul Desmond Warner Bros. Records
1960 Southern Scene Dave Brubeck Columbia
1960 Brubeck and Rushing Dave Brubeck w/ Jimmy Rushing Columbia
1960 Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein Dave Brubeck w/ Leonard Bernstein Columbia Records
1960 Tonight Only w/ Carmen McRae Dave Brubeck Columbia
1961 Time Further Out Dave Brubeck Columbia
61, 63, 64 The Complete Recordings of the Paul Desmond Quartet With Jim Hall Paul Desmond Mosaic Records
1961 Take Five Dave Brubeck Columbia
1961 Desmond Blue Paul Desmond RCA Victor
1962 Countdown - Time in Outer Space Dave Brubeck Columbia
1962 Bossa Nova U.S.A. Dave Brubeck Columbia
1962 Brandenburg Gate Revisited Dave Brubeck Columbia
1962 Late Lament Paul Desmond RCA/Bluebird Records
1962 Two of a Mind Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan RCA Victor
1962 Brubeck in Amsterdam Dave Brubeck Columbia
1963 At Carnegie Hall Dave Brubeck Quartet Columbia
1963 Take Ten Paul Desmond RCA Victor
63, 64, 65 Easy Living Paul Desmond RCA Victor
1963 Glad to Be Unhappy Paul Desmond RCA Victor
1963 Time Changes Dave Brubeck Columbia
1964 Jazz Impressions of Japan Dave Brubeck Columbia
1964 Jazz Impressions of New York Dave Brubeck Columbia
1964 In Concert 1964 Dave Brubeck Jazz Connoisseur
1964 Bossa Antigua Paul Desmond RCA Victor
1964 Dave Brubeck in Berlin Dave Brubeck Columbia Records
1965 The Canadian Concert of Dave Brubeck Dave Brubeck Can-Am Records
1965 Angel Eyes Dave Brubeck Columbia
1965 My Favorite Things Dave Brubeck Columbia
1965 Time In Dave Brubeck Columbia
1966 Anything Goes! Dave Brubeck Columbia
1966 The Quartet Dave Brubeck Europa Jazz
1966 Jackpot! Dave Brubeck Columbia
1967 Bravo! Brubeck! Dave Brubeck Columbia
1967 Buried Treasures Dave Brubeck Columbia/Legacy
1967 Take Five Live Dave Brubeck Jazz Music Yesterday
1967 The Last Time We Saw Paris Dave Brubeck Columbia
1968 Summertime Paul Desmond A&M/CTI
1969 From the Hot Afternoon Paul Desmond A&M/CTI
1969 Bridge Over Troubled Water Paul Desmond A&M/CTI
1971 The Only Recorded Performance of Paul Desmond With the Modern Jazz Quartet Paul Desmond Finesse Records
1972 We're All Together Again for the First Time Dave Brubeck/Gerry Mulligan/Paul Desmond Atlantic Records
1973 Skylark Paul Desmond CTI Records
1973 Giant Box Don Sebesky CTI
1974 She Was Too Good to Me Chet Baker CTI
1974 Pure Desmond Paul Desmond CTI
1975 Like Someone in Love Paul Desmond Telarc Records
1975 Concierto Jim Hall CTI
1975 1975: The Duets Dave Brubeck/Paul Desmond Horizon Records
1975 The Paul Desmond Quartet Live Paul Desmond Horizon
1976 At Bourbon Street, Toronto 10/75 Paul Desmond Artists House
1976 25th Anniversary Reunion Dave Brubeck Horizon
1977 You Can't Go Home Again Chet Baker Horizon
1977 The Best Thing for You Chet Baker A&M
1977 Watermark Art Garfunkel Columbia


  1. ^ "The Milwaukee Sentinel – May 31, 1977 – Jazz Musician Paul Desmond Dies at Age 52 – Google News Archive". May 31, 1977. Retrieved 2012-06-25. 
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ [2]
  4. ^ [3]
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Doyle, Brian (2004). Spirited Men: Story, Soul, and Substance.  
  7. ^ Smith, Hedrick (June 4, 2007). "Dave on Paul Desmond and the Quartet". 
  8. ^ a b Lees, Gene (2001). Cats of Any Color: Jazz Black and White. Da Capo Press. pp. 55–57.  
  9. ^ Martin, Henry (2004). Essential Jazz: The First 100 Years.  
  10. ^ a b c  
  11. ^ a b "Paul Desmond-isms". Retrieved 2013-09-22. 
  12. ^ Owens, Thomas (1995). Bebop: The Music and Its Players.  
  13. ^ Ramsey, Doug (2005). Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond. Seattle: Parkside Publications. pp. 102, 118, 216, 292.  

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