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Paul Desmond

Paul Emil Breitenfeld

Alto Saxophonist, Composer

(1924 - 1977)

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Paul Desmond had a sound on alto saxophone that remains highly recognizable. His ambition, he said, was to sound like a dry martini. He began by playing clarinet in high school and was tutored in music theory by his father, a theater organist and arranger. Paul studied literature at San Francisco State and, although he did not pursue a writing career, he displayed considerable talent. A short, witty piece entitled “How Jazz Came to Orange County Fair” was published in Punch in 1973. This was an excerpt from a book that Desmond was purportedly writing called “How Many of You Are There in the Quartet?”

Desmond first met pianist Dave Brubeck while both were in the Army, and in 1947 they connected again. Brubeck was studying at Mills College and playing nights with a trio in San Francisco. Desmond began sitting in with the trio and with Brubeck’s experimental octet at Mills.

In 1951 Desmond joined what was to become one of the most famous groups in jazz, the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Desmond’s airy, melodic style was a perfect balance to Brubeck’s forceful, polytonal playing. Their uncanny rapport and ability to interact kept the music exciting and fresh. The group’s popularity had spread via college campuses, but a Time magazine article featuring Brubeck brought them international attention in 1954, the same year that Paul recorded his first album as a leader, The Paul Desmond Quintet - Desmond.

In 1959 their Time Out album, which experimented with time signatures, was an enormous hit, and “Take Five,” written by Desmond in 5/4 time, was the first jazz instrumental to sell over a million singles. Other of his compositions such as “Audrey,” “Desmond Blue,” and “Wendy” are often visited by jazz musicians.

After the Quartet disbanded in 1967, Desmond recorded a duet with Brubeck, guested with Brubeck’s musician sons, and played in pianoless groups with guitarist Jim Hall and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. He frequently played in Toronto, Canada, leading a quartet that included guitarist Ed Bickert, bassist Don Thompson, and drummer Jerry Fuller.

Desmond’s wry humor was intact even as he was dying. Doug Ramsey in his book Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond reports that when asked if he wanted a memorial service, Desmond replied, “I don’t care. I’ll be dead.”

- Sandra Burlingame

The Complete Oberlin & College of the Pacific Concerts

Paul Desmond

Time Out

Dave Brubeck Quartet

Take Ten

Paul Desmond

1975: The Duets

Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond

Two of a Mind

Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan

The Paul Desmond Quartet Live

Paul Desmond

Easy Living

Paul Desmond
Reading and Viewing

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Doug Ramsey

Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond

Parkside Publications, Inc.


Paul Desmond

Paul Desmond - Standard Time (Artist Transcriptions)

Hal Leonard Corporation

Paul Desmond

The Paul Desmond Collection

Hal Leonard Corporation



DownBeat - The Great Jazz Interviews (A 75th Anniversary Anthology) (Book)

Hal Leonard

Joe Williams, Dave Brubeck, Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk, Joshua Redman

Monterey Jazz Festival: 40 Legendary Years

Warner Home Video

DVD - (Includes Paul Desmond)

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