Paul Desmond, Idol of Cool

Affectionately nicknamed “the swingin' introvert” by his friends and peers, Paul Desmond's dulcet alto sax voice has become one of the iconic sounds of modern jazz. Although best known for his long-time musical relationship with Dave Brubeck, Desmond quietly carved his name into jazz history with other luminaries of the day as well. Over 30 years after his passing, he remains one of the most lyrical and melodic saxophonists ever heard, and typifies his genre perfectly—if Miles Davis gave birth to the cool, and if Chet Baker was its prince, Desmond was certainly its idol.

San Francisco and the Early Days

Born Paul Emil Breitenfield, on November 25, 1924, Desmond's musical background was fostered throughout his childhood. His father, an organist, also arranged music for the Golden Gate Theater in their native San Francisco. Desmond played violin and clarinet throughout high school, but switched to alto saxophone at 19 years of age, the same year he would be drafted for the Army. It was at San Francisco's Presidio Army Base that Desmond first played alongside Brubeck; although Brubeck's attempt to enter the Army band fell short, this meeting would set the stage for the duo's future collaborations. (NPR, 2008)

Brubeck and Desmond would play together as college students in the mid-'40s, as part of Brubeck's little-known octet, playing experimental music centered around the classical elements of modern jazz. With the group generating few gigs, the octet was soon disbanded, but Brubeck quickly organized a trio, playing at San Francisco's Geary Cellar, where Desmond often sat in. It was here that the two began to sharpen their instincts as a musical pair. (NPR, 2008)

“We had some sort of ESP. A lot of funny things would happen while we were playing that would amaze both of us,” Brubeck recollected. He particularly enjoyed Desmond's adeptness at improvised counterpoint: “[Paul would] jump from the high register and answer himself in the low register.” (NPR, 2008) It was this sharp contrast between the pianist's large, complex chords and Desmond's melodic, intricate soloing that pushed the pair into new musical zones, and created textures not heard before in jazz. (Jurek, 2004)

The Quartet is Founded

1951 saw the creation of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, with Desmond, drummer Joe Morello and bassist Eugene Wright. Commercially a massive success, the group toured extensively, playing over 300 shows a year, and secured a contract with Columbia Records for four albums each year. It was in this context, in 1959, that Desmond turned out the quartet's magnum opus, and one of the most popular jazz tunes ever written, the uber-cool “Take Five.” (Pure Desmond, 2005)

Ironically, the song was almost a passing thought for it's author; Desmond stated, “At the time I really thought it was kind of a throw-away. I was ready to trade the entire rights, lifetime-wise of 'Take Five' for a used Ronson electric razor. And the thing that makes 'Take Five' work is the bridge, which we almost didn't use. We really came within... I shudder to think how close we came to not using that, because I said, 'Well I got this theme that we could use for a middle part.' And Dave said, 'Well let's run it through.' And that's what made 'Take Five'.” (Pure Desmond, 2005)

Later Years

The juggernaut Brubeck Quartet remained one of the most popular groups in jazz until its dissolution in 1967. Desmond unofficially retired at the band's breakup, although he remained one of the heaviest hitters in jazz music, and continued to record with big names beyond the four-tet. He played in another quartet with guitarist Jim Hall at a series of dates at the Half Note in New York, teamed up with Gerry Mulligan for a set at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, and made guest appearances on several albums with fellow cool jazz ambassador Chet Baker. Desmond's collaborations with Canadian musicians Ed Bickert (guitar), Don Thompson (bass), and Jerry Fuller (drums), otherwise known as his “Canadian Quartet,” reflect his never-ending resourcefulness and inspiration, even in a period of so-called “retirement.” He also played a 1971 Christmas concert with the Modern Jazz Quartet as a guest soloist. The Brubeck Quartet rejoined for a silver-anniversary tour in 1976, and again enjoyed a huge popular following. His final live performance came in February 1977, with the Brubeck Quartet, at New York's Avery Fisher Hall. (Pure Desmond, 2005) Desmond succumbed to lung cancer three months later.

A Legend Remembered

Desmond was fondly remembered for his intellect and charm, and his witticisms abound throughout stories from his friends and colleagues. A notable drinker, he found irony in the fact that lung cancer would be his undoing; his liver in fine condition, he remarked it was “Pristine, perfect. One of the great livers of our time. Awash in Dewar's and full of health.” (Pure Desmond, 2005) An homage to his personality and his lifestyle, his friends recall another story:

“His friends tell of his last weeks, when an old friend, jazz legend Charles Mingus, appeared at his apartment draped in a swirling black cape and a matching Spanish cowboy hat. He stood in silent vigil at Desmond's bedside. Then slowly, Desmond awoke. Looking up, he searched his memory, trying to make sense of the image looming before him. Finally it clicked -- the hooded harvester from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. 'Okay, set up the chess board.' And he grinned.”

Desmond's deep intelligence and creativity, evident in his personality and reflected in his playing, made an indelible mark on the cool jazz of his era, and continues to influence musicians of today. His peers often made reference to his sensibilities: Charlie Parker named him his favorite alto player, while Cannonball Adderley called him the most lyrical altoist, and a profoundly beautiful player. (Pure Desmond, 2005) His “darkly lilting” alto spoke softly, regardless of the group around him, and always leaves the listener with an unusual sense of simultaneous satisfaction and yearning. Apropos, Brubeck remembers their final performance together:

“Paul never said it would be the end. But we knew he was getting weaker and weaker. So he just played the second half. And when it came time for the encore, because the whole audience wanted Paul back onstage, he said the old cliché, 'Leave em wanting more.'

And we didn't go back on."


Jurek, T. (2004). “Paul Desmond.” Retrieved from

“Paul Desmond.” (2005, May 31). Retrieved from

“Paul Desmond: 'The Sound of a Dry Martini'.” (2008, January 2). Retrieved from


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