Paul Desmond

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Paul Desmond
Desmond brubeck 5a51762u.jpg
Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, October 8, 1954
Background information
Birth namePaul Emil Breitenfeld
Also known as"The Stork"
Born(1924-11-25)November 25, 1924
San Francisco, California, United States
DiedMay 30, 1977(1977-05-30) (aged 52)
Manhattan, New York City, United States[1]
GenresCool jazz, West Coast jazz, mainstream jazz
Occupation(s)Musician, composer, arranger
InstrumentsAlto saxophone, clarinet
LabelsColumbia, RCA Victor, Horizon, CTI
Associated actsDave Brubeck, Ed Bickert, Gerry Mulligan, Jim Hall, Chet Baker
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Paul Desmond
Desmond brubeck 5a51762u.jpg
Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, October 8, 1954
Background information
Birth namePaul Emil Breitenfeld
Also known as"The Stork"
Born(1924-11-25)November 25, 1924
San Francisco, California, United States
DiedMay 30, 1977(1977-05-30) (aged 52)
Manhattan, New York City, United States[1]
GenresCool jazz, West Coast jazz, mainstream jazz
Occupation(s)Musician, composer, arranger
InstrumentsAlto saxophone, clarinet
LabelsColumbia, RCA Victor, Horizon, CTI
Associated actsDave 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 composing 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.

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[edit]

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 a pianist, organist, and composer, who accompanied silent films in movie theaters and arranged for music companies. 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[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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[citation needed] 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]


1950The Dave Brubeck OctetDave BrubeckFantasy Records
1951Brubeck/DesmondDave BrubeckFantasy Records
1951Jazz at StoryvilleDave BrubeckFantasy Records
1951Modern Complex DialoguesDave BrubeckAlto Records
1951How Long, Baby How Long, Pt. 1&2Jack SheedyCoronet Records
1951The Man I Love c/w Down in Honkytonk TownJack SheedyCoronet
1952Jazz at the BlackhawkDave BrubeckFantasy
1952The Dave Brubeck QuartetDave BrubeckFantasy
1953Jazz at OberlinDave BrubeckFantasy
1953Jazz at the College of the PacificDave BrubeckFantasy
1954Dave Brubeck at Storyville 1954Dave BrubeckColumbia Records
1954Jazz Goes to CollegeDave BrubeckColumbia
1954Brubeck TimeDave BrubeckColumbia
1954Gerry Mulligan/Paul DesmondPaul Desmond, Gerry MulliganFantasy
1955Jazz: Red Hot And CoolDave BrubeckColumbia
1955Chet Baker Quartet Plus: The Newport Years, Vol. 1Chet BakerPhilology Records
1956The Paul Desmond Quartet With Don ElliottPaul DesmondFantasy
1956–57Dave Brubeck Quartet Live in 1956-57 Featuring Paul DesmondDave BrubeckJazz Band
1956Live From Basin StreetDave BrubeckJazz Band
1956Jazz Impressions of U.S.A.Dave BrubeckColumbia
1957ReunionDave Brubeck w/ Dave Van KriedtFantasy
1957Jazz Goes to Junior CollegeDave BrubeckColumbia
1957Dave Digs DisneyDave BrubeckColumbia
1957Blues in TimePaul Desmond, Gerry MulliganVerve Records
1958In EuropeDave Brubeck QuartetColumbia
1958Newport 1958Dave BrubeckColumbia
1958Jazz Impressions of EurasiaDave BrubeckColumbia
1959Gone with the WindDave BrubeckColumbia
1959Time OutDave BrubeckColumbia
1959St. Louis BluesDave BrubeckMoon Records
1959First place Again!Paul DesmondWarner Bros. Records
1960Southern SceneDave BrubeckColumbia
1960Brubeck and RushingDave Brubeck w/ Jimmy RushingColumbia
1960Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays BernsteinDave Brubeck w/ Leonard BernsteinColumbia Records
1960Tonight Only w/ Carmen McRaeDave BrubeckColumbia
1961Time Further OutDave BrubeckColumbia
61, 63, 64The Complete Recordings of the Paul Desmond Quartet With Jim HallPaul DesmondMosaic Records
1961Take FiveDave BrubeckColumbia
1961Desmond BluePaul DesmondRCA Victor
1962Countdown - Time in Outer SpaceDave BrubeckColumbia
1962Bossa Nova U.S.A.Dave BrubeckColumbia
1962Brandenburg Gate RevisitedDave BrubeckColumbia
1962Late LamentPaul DesmondRCA/Bluebird Records
1962Two of a MindPaul Desmond, Gerry MulliganRCA Victor
1962Brubeck in AmsterdamDave BrubeckColumbia
1963At Carnegie HallDave Brubeck QuartetColumbia
1963Take TenPaul DesmondRCA Victor
63, 64, 65Easy LivingPaul DesmondRCA Victor
1963Glad to Be UnhappyPaul DesmondRCA Victor
1963Time ChangesDave BrubeckColumbia
1964Jazz Impressions of JapanDave BrubeckColumbia
1964Jazz Impressions of New YorkDave BrubeckColumbia
1964In Concert 1964Dave BrubeckJazz Connoisseur
1964Bossa AntiguaPaul DesmondRCA Victor
1964Dave Brubeck in BerlinDave BrubeckColumbia Records
1965The Canadian Concert of Dave BrubeckDave BrubeckCan-Am Records
1965Angel EyesDave BrubeckColumbia
1965My Favorite ThingsDave BrubeckColumbia
1965Time InDave BrubeckColumbia
1966Anything Goes!Dave BrubeckColumbia
1966The QuartetDave BrubeckEuropa Jazz
1966Jackpot!Dave BrubeckColumbia
1967Bravo! Brubeck!Dave BrubeckColumbia
1967Buried TreasuresDave BrubeckColumbia/Legacy
1967Take Five LiveDave BrubeckJazz Music Yesterday
1967The Last Time We Saw ParisDave BrubeckColumbia
1968SummertimePaul DesmondA&M/CTI
1969From the Hot AfternoonPaul DesmondA&M/CTI
1969Bridge Over Troubled WaterPaul DesmondA&M/CTI
1971The Only Recorded Performance of Paul Desmond With the Modern Jazz QuartetPaul DesmondFinesse Records
1972We're All Together Again for the First TimeDave Brubeck/Gerry Mulligan/Paul DesmondAtlantic Records
1973SkylarkPaul DesmondCTI Records
1973Giant BoxDon SebeskyCTI
1974She Was Too Good to MeChet BakerCTI
1974Pure DesmondPaul DesmondCTI
1975Like Someone in LovePaul DesmondTelarc Records
1975ConciertoJim HallCTI
19751975: The DuetsDave Brubeck/Paul DesmondHorizon Records
1975The Paul Desmond Quartet LivePaul DesmondHorizon
1976At Bourbon Street, Toronto 10/75Paul DesmondArtists House
197625th Anniversary ReunionDave BrubeckHorizon
1977You Can't Go Home AgainChet BakerHorizon
1977The Best Thing for YouChet BakerA&M
1977WatermarkArt GarfunkelColumbia


  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. Cowley Publications. pp. 73–74. ISBN 1-56101-258-0. 
  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. ISBN 0-306-80950-8. 
  9. ^ Martin, Henry (2004). Essential Jazz: The First 100 Years. Thomson Wadsworth. p. 314. ISBN 0-534-63810-4. 
  10. ^ a b c Robinson, Perry (2002). Perry Robinson: The Traveler. iUniverse. pp. 190–191. ISBN 0-595-21538-6. 
  11. ^ a b "Paul Desmond-isms". Retrieved 2013-09-22. 
  12. ^ Owens, Thomas (1995). Bebop: The Music and Its Players. Oxford University Press. p. 68. ISBN 0-19-510651-2. 
  13. ^ Ramsey, Doug (2005). Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond. Seattle: Parkside Publications. pp. 102, 118, 216, 292. ISBN 0-9617266-7-9. 

External links[edit]