A Closer Look At Jazz Saxophone Legend Paul Desmond

Paul Desmond was a 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. Known to have possessed an idiosyncratic wit, he was one of the most popular musicians to come out of the West Coast’s “cool jazz” scene.


Early Life:

Born Paul Emil Breitenfeld in San Francisco, California in 1924, Paul Desmond was brought up in a music environment – like most great musicians. Contrary to most musician’s childhood, however, he was not encouraged to pursue music. From a very young age, Paul began playing violin, although it was against his father’s wishes – in fact he forbade him to play it. Needless to say, this caused quite a bit of controversy at home.

His mother, who was emotionally unstable during his upbringing, did not help the situation, adding to more problems. For this reason, Paul spent most of his time with relatives in New York City. At the age of 12, he began playing clarinet at San Francisco Polytechnic High. It was not until he became a freshman at San Francisco State College that he picked up the alto saxophone. In his freshman year he was drafted into the United States Army and joined the Army band while stationed in San Franscisco. He spent three years in the military, but his unit was never called to combat.


Following the conclusion of World War II, Desmond started working in Palo Alto, California at the Bandbox. He also worked some 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 – incidentally,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.

The story of their encounter is somewhat humorous. Brubeck, who was married with three children now and who held a grudge from his earlier experience with Desmond, instructed his wife Iola not to let him step foot in his house. But 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 – yes a babysitting job!


Desmond’s Music Career:

The Dave Brubeck Quartet, which was together for 16years (1951-1967), became especially popular with college-age audiences, often performing in college settings like on their 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 eventually led to a Time magazine piece on them in 1954, with the famous cover featuring Brubeck’s face.

The group experience much success until 1967 – when Brubeck switched focus from music to composition and broke the unit up. During the 1970s Desmond rejoined with Dave 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 he played 25 shows in 25 nights with Brubeck, touring the United States in several cities by bus.

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. This collaboration was never fully realized (according to many publicists, critics, and jazz lovers), and like many groups of the time, was done before it really started. Many fans (of Desmond and Mulligan alike) like to speculate what more could have come from these two great musicians.

Other collaborations took place throughout Paul’s career, including his work with guitarist Jim Hall, guitarist Ed Bickert, tumpet player Chet Baker, as well his Paul’s own group – The Paul Desmond Quartet. He would go on to record countless albums, not to mention those that he appeared in as a guest artist. Despite a falling out with Brubeck, most people did enjoy their time working the Paul, and his contributions toward their productions – as well as music in general – were greatly appreciated.

Desmond’s Style:

Paul had many influences over the years; however there is one that stands out from the rest – Lee Konitz. Like Konitz, Desmond had a light melodic tone when playing the alto, and his lines have been characterized as subtle and fleeting. In addition, 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”.

Many music experts – and Desmond fans especially – would say that much of the success of the classic Brubeck quartet was due to the superposition of Paul’s airy style over Brubeck’s sometimes relatively heavy, polytonal piano work. It is true that his work on saxophone greatly contributed to the overall Brubeck quartet style; however it should also be mentioned that it was in contrast to Brubeck’s own playing. In other words, without Brubeck’s contributions, that airy sound might not have had as much of an effect – it’s a two-way street in this regard.


Desmond continued to record album after album. Even in his last year, he released two albums in collaboration with Chet Baker – You Can’t Go Home Again & The Best Thing For You. His life, however, was cut short when he died of cancer in 1977.


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Further Sources:
(1) Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond (hardcover, 2005)
(2) Take 5 (The Dave Brubeck Quartet) — Instrumental Sheet Music
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