Known as "the swinging introvert," Paul Desmond once described his sound as "like a dry martini." With his darkly lilting approach, Desmond rose to fame while soloing in the crook of Dave Brubeck's piano, teaming with the bandleader to help form one of the most heralded groups in jazz history. Desmond also penned one of the most successful jazz classics of all time, "Take Five."
Paul Desmond was born Paul Emil Breitenfeld on Nov. 25, 1924, in San Francisco, where his father played organ and arranged music for the Golden Gate Theater. After playing both the violin and the clarinet in high school, Desmond switched to alto saxophone in 1943 — the same year the Army drafted him. He eventually changed his surname to Desmond, claiming with a straight face that Breitenfeld sounded too "Irish." Such witticisms typified his demeanor.
Desmond first encountered Brubeck while playing in an Army band stationed at San Francisco's Presidio army base. Brubeck's attempt to join the group as a piano player failed, but his playing had a profound impact on Desmond, who noted that Brubeck "would be in 15 different keys on an 'out-of-tune piano.'"
After WWII, the two crossed paths again. While attending San Francisco State University, Desmond joined an innovative group headed by Brubeck, who was studying at Mills College in Oakland. They formed a pioneering octet and created music that placed heavy emphasis on the European classical elements in modern jazz. Unable to generate substantial gigs for the experimental octet, Desmond and Brubeck disbanded the group.
Brubeck began playing with a trio at San Francisco's Geary Cellar, and Desmond regularly sat in with the band. Unlike the structured environment of the pair's octet, the small ensemble encouraged Brubeck and Desmond to improvise with each other more freely. Brubeck succinctly describes their bond: "We had some sort of ESP. A lot of funny things would happen while we were playing that would amaze both of us." Their unique rapport often generated a spontaneous musical counterpoint that was neither planned nor discussed prior to performances. Often, Desmond would flash his sense of humor by creating the illusion of counterpoint while soloing. Brubeck recalls Desmond "jump[ing] from the high register and answer[ing] himself in the low register."
In the late '40s, Desmond and Brubeck began working together at a college hangout called the Bandbox, near Palo Alto, Calif. During this time, the two deepened their sense of musical and familial empathy. As the group's leader, Brubeck sometimes intentionally pushed Desmond beyond his musical preferences by forcing him to play uptempo tunes. As jazz writer and lyricist Gene Lees recalls, Desmond preferred playing ballads and midtempo tunes. But Brubeck knew that if he pushed Desmond into uptempo songs like "Perdido" and "I Got Rhythm," Desmond would play his heart out.
Despite the many musical highs they experienced at the Bandbox, Desmond and Brubeck had a falling out which threatened their future together. Desmond left for New York, while Brubeck started a new trio and began receiving critical attention. When Desmond caught wind of the rising popularity of Brubeck's new group, he promptly returned to San Francisco. Brubeck's family coaxed him into reconciling with Desmond. In 1951, their relationship was rekindled, and the Dave Brubeck Quartet became one of the most popular jazz groups of the next 16 years.
In the 1950s, the Brubeck Quartet flourished with Desmond. He regularly won critics' polls as jazz's best alto sax player, and his melodic sound distinguished itself by balancing Brubeck's dense chords. A magnificent improviser, Desmond would often seamlessly blend quotes from other popular songs and classical compositions into his improvisations.
Desmond made a conscious effort to avoid the influences of fellow alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. Parker, whose amazing dexterity would nearly define the bebop era, played in an aggressive style that was often in direct contrast to Desmond's lighter lyricism. But as evident from a joint radio interview in 1954, the two musicians had tremendous respect for each other. During the interview, Parker comments to Desmond that it was a pleasure to know him and Brubeck.
In 1959, the Brubeck quartet produced one of the most seminal works in jazz history: Time Out. The band set out to produce an album that consciously strayed from the standard 4/4 meter used on most jazz recordings of that period, with all seven tunes employing unconventional time signatures. Brubeck composed all of the songs for Time Out except one: "Take Five," which he asked Desmond to write. What Desmond at the time called "a throwaway" would become the most successful jazz single ever recorded. Forty years later, "Take Five," with its mesmerizing melody and unlikely drum solo, still lights up phones on radio-station switchboards every time it's played.
In 1967, Brubeck broke up his quartet, and Desmond reluctantly began a full-time solo career, as biographer Doug Ramsey recalls. In spite of Desmond's immense popularity, he never cared for fame or record sales. In his will, Desmond left huge "Take Five" royalties to the Red Cross. He dedicated the next 10 years to playing with superb musicians, including guitarist Jim Hall, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker.
In 1976, Desmond rejoined Brubeck for a successful reunion tour commemorating the quartet's 25th anniversary. One year later, he succumbed to lung cancer. Long remembered for his sharp wit and musical excellence, Paul Desmond's songs and sounds have had an immense and ongoing impact on modern jazz.
Link to NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library:
Support the news
More NPR or Explore Audio.