The Dave Brubeck Quartet was the only jazz combo since the Swing Era to be a worldwide success in popular music. With the immense popularity of Desmond's composition Take Five the Brubeck Quartet became the first million-selling jazz group. A painting of Dave Brubeck was featured on the cover of Time magazine as early as November 1954. In contemporary reviews, saxophonist Desmond was frequently recognized as crucial to the band's success.
Paul Desmond died - far too early - at the age of 52, in May 1977, from lung cancer. For many he was one of the truly great melodic saxophonists and, crucially, one of the few to resist the power of Charlie Parker's influence. In the decades since his death his recognition has been dimmed by many forces, including fashion and thoughtlessness. This biography is timely. "Paul's playing and his recorded legacy are coming back into the frame a little bit more as we've had enough post-Coltrane," says Darius Brubeck, Dave's son. "The whole modal approach to playing is seen in perspective as, yes, an approach, but people are rediscovering the straight ahead mould, too." After reading Take Five, I agree with Darius. I'd go further, to suggest that the library of every music conservatoire, every serious saxophonist, and every jazz lover should own this book. It's that important. For me, as for many others, Paul Desmond has been neglected for too long. Guitarist Jim Hall was right: "He stayed true to himself through all that stuff in the sixties," he said. "The ironic thing is that guys were just imitating John Coltrane, and Paul was always searching. I thought he should get an award in a special category called Not Copying People."
Like other jazz books from Parkside - the recent biography of Buddy De Franco, for instance - Take Five is luxuriously produced in large (10 X 11 inches) format, with many illustrations throughout its 372 pages. Actually, its size - or rather, the format - is one of my few criticisms: the book makes an awkward companion. I lived with it for several days, schlepping it about from desk to rehearsal room to restaurant to cafe. Yes, this really is a coffee table book. One certainly needs a table on which to rest it when reading!
Occasionally a publication changes one's thinking. Take Five is such a book. I am old enough to have attended several of Desmond's concerts back in the 1950s. Doug Ramsey's account rekindled my respect, taught me more than I had ever imagined about its subject, propelling me into a Desmondmania that set me on a revisionist crusade of buying old Brubeck CDs and raving to my friends about my re-discoveries. Take Five includes transcriptions of several of Desmond's recorded solos, with comment and analysis by Bud Shank, Paul Cohen, John Handy and others, so that the book gives one something instructive to play, as well. Desmond believed that jazz can be learnt but not taught; here's a way for saxophonists, indeed all instrumentalists, to get learning.
Several of Paul Desmond's talents had nothing to do with music or the saxophone. For instance, women adored him. This incredible appeal recurs repeatedly in Ramsey's book, though the accounts don't dwell on detail. Desmond was always a gentleman, never speaking about his many affairs, or his frequent casual encounters. He was even married for a while, a surprise to many who thought they knew him well. In Bud Shank's words, "Paul Desmond was a musical nobleman. He had class, intelligence, sophistication, evidence of much work, study and preparation (practice), and every other attribute implied by the word 'noble'. Add to that much wit and humour, and the result is Paul Desmond." One revelation is that at times the saxophonist was keen on rhythm and brews. Happily, for the most part he was able to conceal what was, by any standards, very heavy drinking.
Paul Desmond loved literature. Much of his humour is in wordplay, as in his imaginary birth control pill for men, called 'I Kid You Not.' He constructed other elaborate puns, most famously the one about Vogue fashion models: "Sometimes they go around with guys who are scuffling - for a while," he observed. "But usually they end up marrying some cat with a factory. This is the way the world ends, not with a whim but a banker." His imaginary album of Irish songs included: 'Fitzhugh or No One,' 'Mahoney a Bird in a Gilded Cage,' and 'The Tralee Song.'
Desmond's musical ability, and his fondness for mind games, from chess to scrabble to word puns, were combined in his remarkable skill at weaving musical quotations into his improvisations. Never one to strike up the bland, his quotes were oblique and witty. Some commentators expressed scepticism about the spontaneity of these quotations. Robert Rice was such a doubter. He wrote about this in the May 1961 edition of the New Yorker:
"(Desmond's) most astonishing trick with quotations, though, is to tell a complicated story about something he has seen or experienced. At perhaps two o'clock one recent morning, while he was driving himself and Brubeck - at a speed considerably above the legal limit - through Pennsylvania after a concert, he overtook a black sedan, which was proceeding at a rather leisurely pace. Presently, he became aware that the sedan was right behind him. He assumed that it was being piloted by a prankster, and he accelerated to get away from him. With the gentle whirring of a siren, the sedan pulled up beside him, and one of its occupants motioned him to stop. Two men climbed out, wearing the broad-brimmed hats of Pennsylvania state troopers, and ordered Desmond to produce his documents, and to get out of the car and show them that he could walk in a straight line. Then they ordered him to get back in and follow them to "the Squire's." Presently, the two cars pulled into the driveway of a frame house, and one of the troopers called to an upstairs window that he had a speeder in custody. The group was admitted to a downstairs office, where the Squire sat down at a desk, inserted a long form in a typewriter, and for fifteen minutes filled it in with information that the troopers gave him. Then, Desmond pleaded guilty as charged, and was fined fifteen dollars and sent on his way.
The quartet had a concert the following afternoon, and in his first solo in the first number - which was, appropriately, 'Gone With the Wind' - Desmond strung together, with precision and grace, excerpts from 'Pennsylvania Polka,' 'Me and My Shadow,' 'How Long Has this Been Going On?,' 'Where Did You Get That Hat?,' 'Would You Like to Take a Walk?,' 'Down by the Station Early in the Morning,' 'I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,' and 'I Could Write a Book,' followed by the phrase that comes from 'Sixteen Tons' that goes with 'I owe my soul to the company store.' "
There is no space here to describe Desmond's early prowess as a clarinettist, to tell about his friendship with Charlie Parker, his remarkable relationship with his musician father, or the incredible ingratitude of the Red Cross after he bequeathed them millions of dollars.
Gene Lees is quoted as saying he's never seen a biography like this one. I agree. It makes me wish that I could have known Paul Desmond.
See Paul Desmond on YouTube
John Robert Brown