Paul Desmond was a legendary American jazz alto saxophonist and composer. He was an eminent member of the highly renowned Dave Brubeck Quartet, and he earned a reputation as one of West Coast’s best jazz saxophonists.
Paul Emil Breitenfeld was born on November 25, 1924 in San Francisco, California. Desmond’s childhood was problematic as his parents had a somewhat unhealthy relationship. As a child, he often played the violin (even though his father forbade him to do so), and the age of twelve, he would start studying the clarinet at San Francisco’s Polytechnic High School. By the time he reached college, he started playing the Alto Saxophone, which later became his most preferred instrument. Desmond was also drafted into the army for three years due to World War II, however, his unit was never called up to the front lines.
Desmond’s encounter with the legendary Dave Brubeck has become a trademark story in the jazz world. It is said that when Desmond started work in California at the Bandbox, Desmond hired Brubeck; only to first cut his pay in half and then fire him after taking him on tour just so that he (Desmond) could gamble in the casinos at Reno. Brubeck went back home to California and started work with his trio, with whom he landed a radio gig; upon hearing of Brubeck’s success, Desmond travelled back to California and begged Brubeck to hire him, which Brubeck did not, until he made Desmond babysit his children.
Desmond officially started work with the Dave Brubeck Trio (now Quartet with the inclusion of Desmond) in 1951. At first the Quartet spent time touring colleges with Desmond on the Alto Saxophone, and in 1953, they released their debut album titled “Jazz at Oberlin”, which was a live recording of their performances at Oberlin College. In 1954, the quartet was featured on Time Magazine. The Quartet was extremely successful for their Time Series, which was a series of five albums that featured songs in irregular, unusual time signatures such as 5/4 and 9/8. The first Time Series album, “Time Out”, was released in 1959 and it was the first ever jazz album to sell over a million copies. The rest of the Time Series albums were released between 1961 and 1963. Desmond was also credited as the lead songwriter for the Quartet’s most famous composition, “Take Five”. Desmond continued with the Quartet until their breakup in 1967, after which the Quartet only reassembled for reunion tours, the last of which was held in 1976, a year before Desmond’s death. He did however, play one last concert with Brubeck in February 1977.
Desmond spent the remainder of his life playing with many different artists and composers. He first collaborated with Gerry Mulligan, with whom he shared stage in 1969 and in 1974, the former being for the New Orleans Jazz Festival. Desmond also played with guitarist Jim Hall in New York City in 1971, and with Canadian guitarist Ed Bickert in Toronto. One of Desmond’s legendary performances was in collaboration with The Modern Jazz Quartet for a Christmas concert in 1971.
Paul Desmond died on May 30, 1977 due to lung cancer. He donated many of his possessions to libraries and to charity.