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Paul Desmond

Paul Desmond
Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, October 8, 1954
Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, October 8, 1954
Background information
Birth namePaul Emil Breitenfeld
Born(1924-11-25)November 25, 1924
San Francisco, California, U.S.
DiedMay 30, 1977(1977-05-30) (aged 52)
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
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 his work with the Dave Brubeck Quartet and for composing that group's biggest hit, "Take Five". He was one of the most popular musicians to come out of the cool jazz scene.

In addition to his work with Brubeck, he led several groups and collaborated with Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Jim Hall, and Ed Bickert. After years of chain smoking and poor health, Desmond succumbed to lung cancer in 1977 after a tour with Brubeck.

Early life

Desmond was born Paul Emil Breitenfeld in San Francisco, California, in 1924, the son of Shirley (née King) and Emil Aron Breitenfeld.[1] His grandfather Sigmund Breitenfeld was, according to an obituary, born in Austria in 1857. Sigmund Breitenfeld, a medical doctor, emigrated to New York City with his wife Hermine (born Hermine Lewy) at the end of the 19th century, and the Breitenfelds raised their four children (including Desmond's father Emil) with no religion. Interviewed by Desmond biographer Doug Ramsey, Desmond's first cousin Rick Breitenfeld said that no one in the Breitenfeld family could find evidence of Jewish ancestry or Jewish religious observance, but Paul Desmond and members of his father's family "frequently speculated as to whether or not Sigmund or Hermine Breitenfeld had Jewish backgrounds".[2] Biographer Ramsey notes that "the name Breitenfeld could be Jewish or non-Jewish. There are plenty of Breitenfelds in Germany and Austria to support both sides of the argument. Lewy, the maiden surname of Paul's paternal grandmother Hermine, is more likely to be of Jewish origin, but no evidence of her genealogy has surfaced."[2][3][4] However, Fred Barton, songwriter/arranger and Desmond's cousin, found extensive genealogical proof that both the Breitenfeld and Löwy families were Bohemian Jews. The Breitenfeld family in Bohemia and Vienna featured musicians in every generation throughout the 1800s, 1900s, and to the present day.[4] Desmond's mother, born Shirley King, was Catholic, and of Irish descent.[2]

Desmond's father, Emil Breitenfeld, was a pianist, organist, arranger, and composer. Breitenfeld accompanied silent films in movie theaters and produced musical arrangements for printed publication and for live theatrical productions. During World War I, while Breitenfeld was training with the 17th New York Regiment in Plattsburgh, New York, he composed The Last Long Mile, one of the best-known soldiers' songs of that war.[5]

Desmond's mother Shirley was emotionally unstable throughout his upbringing, and appears to have suffered from obsessive–compulsive disorder and other mental illnesses.[2] Starting in 1933, Desmond spent nearly five years living with relatives in New Rochelle, New York due to his mother's mental health problems.

Desmond began to study clarinet at the age of twelve, which he continued while at San Francisco Polytechnic High School. During high school, he wished to study violin, but his father dissuaded him, saying that violin players were "a dime a dozen....with the violin, you'll starve."[2] Desmond developed a talent for writing during high school as well, becoming co-editor of his high school newspaper. In that capacity, he interviewed comedian Bob Hope for his school newspaper during one of Hope's visits to San Francisco. As freshman at San Francisco State College, Desmond began playing alto saxophone. In his first year of college, 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 not called to combat.[6]

In 1946, following his military discharge, Desmond legally changed his last named from Breitenfeld to Desmond. He told many stories over the years regarding how he chose the name Desmond, but his biographer Doug Ramsey offers an account from Desmond's friend Hal Strack that the two were listening to the Glenn Miller band singer Johnny Desmond in 1942, and Desmond told Strack "that's such a great name. It's so smooth and yet it's uncommon....If I ever decide I need another name, it's going to be Desmond."[2] Desmond was married from 1947 to 1949 to Duane Reeves Lamon. Following his divorce, he remained single for the rest of his life.[2]


After World War II, Desmond started working in the San Francisco Bay Area, taking pick-up work as a backing musician as he could find it. He worked occasionally for Dave Brubeck at the Geary Cellar in San Francisco. For a period of several weeks, he led a small jazz combo at the Band Box in Redwood City that included Dave Brubeck. Desmond had a falling out with Brubeck when he resigned from the Band Box and prevented Brubeck from taking over the residency.[2] In 1950 Desmond joined the band of Jack Fina and toured with Fina for several months, but he returned to California after hearing Brubeck's trio on the radio and deciding that he should repair his relationship with Brubeck and attempt to join Brubeck's increasingly successful band.

At the time, Brubeck and Brubeck's wife Iola had three small children, and Brubeck had instructed Iola not to let Desmond set foot in the family home. Desmond appeared at Brubeck's San Francisco apartment one day while Dave was in the back yard hanging diapers on a laundry line, and Iola, defying Brubeck's wishes, let Desmond in and took him to Dave. Desmond offered to perform arranging and administrative work for Brubeck's band, and to babysit Brubeck's children, and Brubeck finally relented and agreed to try working with Desmond again.[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 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 overseas in 1944, to Europe. 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 Desmond convinced 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 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]

Desmond worked several times during his career with baritone saxophonist and band leader Gerry Mulligan. The two made two studio albums together (Gerry Mulligan - Paul Desmond Quartet (1957), and Two of a Mind (1962)). 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]

Desmond had a celebrated studio partnership with guitarist Jim Hall. Hall played on several albums recorded by Desmond between 1959 and 1963 for the Warner Bros. and RCA record labels. After some time spent inactive, Desmond was asked to play the Half Note in New York City in 1971 by 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 was a guest artist on five tracks by Chet Baker recorded between 1975 and 1977. These were released on the albums She Was Too Good to Me, You Can't Go Home Again, and The Best Thing For You. Baker and Desmond also appeared together on two tracks included on Jim Hall's 1975 Concierto album.

Desmond met Canadian guitarist Ed Bickert through a recommendation by Jim Hall, and Desmond performed with Bickert at several clubs in the Toronto area during 1974–1975. Desmond featured Bickert on his 1975 studio album Pure Desmond, and the two played together at the 1976 Edmonton Jazz Festival. Live recordings of that concert and club dates with Bickert performed during 1974-1975 were released during and after Desmond's lifetime.

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 was also described as a womanizer who was unable to form (and was uninterested in maintaining) steady relationships with women, though he had no shortage of female companions throughout his life.[11] 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 semi-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 deeply religious and 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[12]

Desmond 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. In the 1940s and 1950s, Desmond frequently took amphetamines, and in the 1970s, he was known to use cocaine.[2] 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[12]

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.[13] Desmond reportedly owned a Baldwin grand piano, which he lent to Bradley Cunningham, owner of Bradley's piano bar in Greenwich Village, provided that Cunningham 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 produced a light, melodic tone on the alto saxophone, trying to sound, he said, "like a dry martini." With a style that was similar to that of Lee Konitz, one of his influences, he quickly became one of the best-known saxophonists 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.[14]

His rare gift for improvised counterpoint is perhaps most evident on the two albums he recorded with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan (Mulligan-Desmond Quartet and Two of a Mind). Desmond's playing was also notable for his ability to produce extremely high notes, the altissimo register, on his saxophone.

Desmond played a Selmer Super Balanced Action model alto saxophone coupled with an M. C. Gregory model 4A-18M hard rubber mouthpiece, both dating from circa 1951, with a moderately stiff Rico 3 ½ reed.[15]


With Dave Brubeck

Year Album Leader Label
1950 Dave Brubeck Octet Dave Brubeck Fantasy 3239
1951 Brubeck/Desmond Dave Brubeck Quartet Fantasy 3229
1952 Modern Complex Dialogues [live] Dave Brubeck Alto AL-711
1952 Jazz at Storyville Dave Brubeck Fantasy 3240
1952 The Dave Brubeck Quartet Dave Brubeck Fantasy 3230
1952 Jazz at the Blackhawk Dave Brubeck Fantasy 3210
1953 Jazz at Oberlin Dave Brubeck Fantasy 3245
1953 The Jackson-Harris Herd/The Dave Brubeck Quartet: Live at the Blue Note, Chicago, March 1953 Dave Brubeck Quartet, Chubby JacksonBill Harris Herd Jazz Band (UK) EB-2140
1953 Brubeck & Desmond at Wilshire-Ebell Dave Brubeck Fantasy 3249
1953 Jazz at the College of the Pacific Dave Brubeck Fantasy 3223
1953 Jazz at the College of the Pacific, Volume 2 Dave Brubeck OJC 1076
1954 Dave Brubeck at Storyville 1954 Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-590
1954 Jazz Goes to College Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-566
1954 Brubeck Time Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-622
1954 Jazz: Red Hot and Cool [live] Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-699
1956, 1957 Dave Brubeck Quartet Live in 1956–57 Featuring Paul Desmond Dave Brubeck Jazz Band (UK) EB-2102
1956 Live From Basin Street Dave Brubeck Jazz Band (UK) EB-402
1956 Dave Brubeck and Jay & Kai at Newport Dave Brubeck Quartet, J. J. JohnsonKai Winding Quintet Columbia CL-932
1956 Dave Brubeck Featuring Paul Desmond: Live Together Dave Brubeck Joker (Italy) SM-3804; Blue Vox (Switzerland) B/90174
1956 Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A. Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-984
1957 Re-Union Dave Brubeck/Paul Desmond/Dave Van Kriedt Fantasy 3268
1957 Jazz Goes to Junior College Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-1034
1957 Dave Digs Disney Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-1059
1958 The Dave Brubeck Quartet In Europe Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-1168
1958 Newport 1958: Brubeck Plays Ellington Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-1249
1958 Jazz Impressions of Eurasia Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-1251
1958 The Quartet [live] Dave Brubeck Europa Jazz (Italy) EJ-1032; Denon (Japan) 33C38-7681
1959 Gone with the Wind Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-1347/CS-8156
1959 Time Out [includes "Take Five"] Dave Brubeck Quartet Columbia CL-1397/CS-8192
1959, 1962 St. Louis Blues [live] Dave Brubeck Moon (Italy) MLP-028
1959 Southern Scene Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-1439/CS-8235
1960 Brubeck and Rushing Dave Brubeck w/ Jimmy Rushing Columbia CL-1553/CS-8353
1960 Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein Dave Brubeck w/ Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic Columbia CL-1466/CS-8257
1960 Tonight Only! Dave Brubeck w/ Carmen McRae Columbia CL-1609/CS-8409
1961 Time Further Out: Miro Reflections Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-1690/CS-8490
1961, 1962 Countdown—Time in Outer Space Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-1775/CS-8575
1961 Brandenburg Gate: Revisited Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-1963/CS-8763
1961 Take Five Live Dave Brubeck w/ Carmen McRae Columbia CL-2316/CS-9116
1962 Bossa Nova U.S.A. Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-1998/CS-8798
1962 Brubeck in Amsterdam Dave Brubeck Columbia CS-9897
1963 At Carnegie Hall Dave Brubeck Quartet Columbia C2L-26/C2S-826 [as double LP]; CL-2036/CS-8836 and CL-2037/CS-8837 [as single LPs]
1963 Time Changes Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-2127/CS-8927
1964 Jazz Impressions of Japan Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-2212/CS-9012
1964 Jazz Impressions of New York Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-2275/CS-9075
1964 In Concert 1964 Dave Brubeck Jazz Connoisseur (Israel) JC-003
1964 Dave Brubeck in Berlin Dave Brubeck CBS (Germany) 62578
1965 The Canadian Concert of Dave Brubeck Dave Brubeck Can-Am (Canada) 1500
1965 Angel Eyes Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-2348/CS-9148
1965 My Favorite Things Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-2437/CS-9237
1965 Time In Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-2512/CS-9312
1966 Dave Brubeck's Greatest Hits [compilation] Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-2484/CS-9284
1966 Anything Goes! The Dave Brubeck Quartet Plays Cole Porter Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-2602/CS-9402
1966 Jackpot! Recorded Live in Las Vegas Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-2712/CS-9512
1967 Bravo! Brubeck! [live] Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-2695/CS-9495
1967 Buried Treasures: Recorded Live in Mexico City Dave Brubeck Columbia/Legacy CK-65777
1967 Take Five Live Dave Brubeck JMY (Italy) 1001
1967 The Last Time We Saw Paris [live] Dave Brubeck Columbia CL-2872/CS-9672
1967 Their Last Time Out: The Unreleased Live Concert, December 26, 1967 Dave Brubeck Quartet Columbia/Legacy 886978156228
1971 Summit Sessions Dave Brubeck Columbia C-30522
1972 We're All Together Again for the First Time Dave Brubeck/Gerry Mulligan/Paul Desmond Atlantic SD-1641
1975 1975: The Duets Dave Brubeck/Paul Desmond Horizon/A&M SP-703
1976 25th Anniversary Reunion Dave Brubeck Quartet Horizon/A&M SP-714

As bandleader

Year Album Leader Label
1954 Desmond (AKA Paul Desmond Quintet With The Bill Bates Singers) Paul Desmond w/ Dick Collins, Dave Van Kriedt Fantasy 3-21
1956 Desmond: Here I AM (AKA The Paul Desmond Quartet Featuring Don Elliott) Paul Desmond w/ Don Elliott Fantasy 3225
1959 First Place Again Paul Desmond Warner Bros. WS-1356
1962 Desmond Blue Paul Desmond w/ strings RCA Victor LPM-2438
1962 Late Lament [reissue of Desmond Blue with different cover art, different track running order, plus three previously unreleased tracks from the same sessions] Paul Desmond RCA/Bluebird 5778-2-RB
1963 Take Ten Paul Desmond RCA Victor LPM-2569
1965 Glad to Be Unhappy Paul Desmond featuring Jim Hall RCA Victor LPM-3407
1965 Bossa Antigua Paul Desmond featuring Jim Hall RCA Victor LPM-3320
1966 Easy Living Paul Desmond featuring Jim Hall RCA Victor LPM-3480
1969 Summertime Paul Desmond A&M/CTI SP-3015
1969 From the Hot Afternoon Paul Desmond A&M/CTI SP-3024
1970 Bridge over Troubled Water Paul Desmond A&M/CTI SP-3032
1974 Skylark Paul Desmond CTI 6039
1974 Pure Desmond Paul Desmond CTI 6059
1975 Live Paul Desmond Quartet Horizon/A&M SP-850
1976 Paul Desmond Paul Desmond w/ Ed Bickert Artists House AH-2
1989 The Complete Recordings of the Paul Desmond Quartet With Jim Hall [posthumous box set] Paul Desmond w/ Jim Hall Mosaic MR6-120
1992 Like Someone in Love [recorded 1975] Paul Desmond Quartet Telarc 83319
2020 The Complete 1975 Toronto Recordings- 7 CD box [recorded 1975] Paul Desmond Quartet Mosaic MD7-269

With Gerry Mulligan

Year Album Leader Label
1954 Gerry Mulligan/Paul Desmond [reissues] Paul Desmond Quintet/Quartet, Gerry Mulligan Quartet Fantasy 3220
1957 Blues in Time (AKA Gerry Mulligan–Paul Desmond Quartet) Paul Desmond w/ Gerry Mulligan Verve MGV-8246
1962 Two of a Mind Paul Desmond w/ Gerry Mulligan RCA Victor LPM-2624

With Chet Baker

Year Album Leader Label
1955 Chet Baker Quartet Plus: The Newport Years, Vol. 1 [live] Chet Baker/Clifford Brown/Gerry Mulligan/Dave Brubeck Philology (Italy) W-51
1974 She Was Too Good to Me Chet Baker CTI 6050
1977 You Can't Go Home Again Chet Baker Horizon/A&M SP-726
1977 The Best Thing for You Chet Baker A&M 0832


Year Album Leader Label
1951 "How Long, Baby How Long, Pt. 1" // "How Long, Baby How Long, Pt. 2" [78rpm 10" disc] Jack Sheedy Sextet Coronet #109
1951 "The Man I Love" // "Down In Honkytonk Town" [78rpm 10" disc] Jack Sheedy Sextet Coronet #110
1971 The Only Recorded Performance of Paul Desmond With The Modern Jazz Quartet [live] Paul Desmond w/ The Modern Jazz Quartet Finesse/Columbia FW-37487
1973 Giant Box Don Sebesky CTI 6031/32
1975 Concierto Jim Hall CTI 6060
1977 Watermark Art Garfunkel Columbia JC-34975


  1. ^ Ramsey, Doug (2005). Take five. ISBN 9780961726676.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Ramsey, Doug (2004). Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond. Seattle, Wa.: Parkside Publications. ISBN 978-0961726676.
  3. ^ Ramsey, Doug (2005). Take five. ISBN 9780961726676.
  4. ^ a b "Paul Desmond". geni_family_tree.
  5. ^ The Singing Program of World War I: The Crusade for a Singing Army Author(s): E. Christina Chang Source: Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Oct., 2001), pp. 19-45 Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.
  6. ^ a b c d e 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. ^ Gioia, Ted (1998). West Coast Jazz, Ch 4: "Dave Brubeck and Modern Jazz in San Francisco"; University of California Press, 1998 ISBN 0520217292
  12. ^ a b "Paul Desmond-isms". Retrieved September 22, 2013.
  13. ^ Gioia, Ted (September 27, 2012). The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire. p. 419. ISBN 9780199937400. When Paul Desmond passed away in 1977, his will stipulated that royalties form this song and his other compositions go to the American Red Cross. Since then, the Red Cross has received more than $6 million from Desmond's bequest.
  14. ^ Owens, Thomas (1995). Bebop: The Music and Its Players. Oxford University Press. p. 68. ISBN 0-19-510651-2.
  15. ^ 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.

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