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15 September 1960

Downbeat, Perils Of Paul, A Portrait Of A Desperate Desmond

DownBeat Magazine - Copyright 

A  few months from now, the Dave Brubeck Quartet will celebrate its 10th anniversary as a unit. Few, if any, jazz groups now playing have endured that long, thought he Modern Jazz Quartet is just about the same age. And few have achieved anything even approaching the broad acceptance that the group has found throughout the world.

Today, with a rhythm section comprising Joe Morello on drums and bassist Eugene Wright, the group is, in the opinion of many observers, playing better than ever before. It has not given in to apathy or the repetition of past successes that seem to rob almost all groups of their vitality when they have stayed together too long.


Undoubtedly a big reason is the tremendous mutual understanding and sympathy-both musical and personal-of Brubeck and his star soloist, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond.

Desmond's status in the group and in fact in the music business, is unique. With Brubeck, he has all the privileges of a leader, much of the acclaim, and few, if any, of the headaches and responsibilities. It is, as Paul puts it, "a limited partnership." He and Dave consult on choice of tunes, tempos, choruses, and so forth. He also takes a generous percentage of the group's earnings.

"In most groups," Paul says, "if they make it, the leader still goes on paying the same money to the sidemen. So eventually they split like amoebae all over the place. In this case, Dave and I worked out a pretty good arrangement some time ago, and that's the way it's been ever since."

One might assume, therefore, that Paul has a dream job. But on closer look, one is tempted to wonder if, for a man of Paul's talent-in many ways, untapped talent-it might be a gilded cage.

For Desmond has a mind that can only be called brilliant-incredibly quick, perceptive, sensitive. He is also remarkably articulate (his original goal in life was to be a writer, not a musician) and witty, with a skill at turning apt and hilarious phrases that leave his friends in hysterics. For example, when a drug company ran an ad for a tranquilizer that showed a bust of composer Richard Wagner (who suffered from splitting headaches) and said that if he'd lived long enough, the new product would have relieved his misery, Desmond promptly dubbed the product "post-Wagnerian anti-drag pills."

Some of his friends are even prone to collecting and quoting Desmondisms, the way in the classical world musicians cherish and repeat the wisecracks of Sir Thomas Beecham.

And his conversation ranges over a vast variety of subjects. Of Jack Kerouac he said, "I hate the way he writes. I kind of like the way he lives, though."

Of Vogue fashion models, he said, "Sometimes they go around with guys who are scuffling-for a while. 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."

Of yogurt he said, "I don't like it, but Dave is always trying things like that. He's a nutritional masochist. He'll eat anything as long as he figures it's good for him."

And he said (self-revealingly) of contact lenses: "Not for me. If I want to tune everybody out, I just take off my glasses and enjoy the haze."

And so it goes. Acute perception of life goes on incessantly within Paul and finds its way out in pithy expressions that are only one part of his eloquence. Give so great a versatility (he is also a skillful photographer), such enormous public acceptance, and the respect of a heavy percentage of his fellow musicians, why should Paul not be perpetually blissful?

Alto player Lee Konitz, whose playing has been likened to Desmond's said recently, "There's an area in Paul that he hasn't been able to realize yet. That's why he gets so depressed-he needs more time to know himself, so that he will get to like himself better. I don't think he has enough time for reflection and thought. I feel that Paul has experienced greatness, and once this feeling of playing what you really hear has been felt by a player, it's difficult to settle for less than this."

"I feel pretty close to Paul," he added, "as I've gone through these things myself, and I still haven't reached the point where I'm happy with what I'm doing."

Paul Emil Breitenfeld ("I picked the name Desmond out of the phone book," he says) was born in San Francisco in 1924. His father played organ for silent movies, wrote band arrangements (and still does), and played accompaniments for vaudeville acts.

As a boy, Paul found family life difficult. When he was 5, his mother became ill and he was sent to live with relatives in New Rochelle, N.Y. In an odd way, his jazz career began there-in grammar school.

"They had a music period," Paul remembers. "Like a postgraduate kindergarten band, with psalteries and chimes and all.

"By the end of the term I was getting to be like the Terry Gibbs of Daniel Webster, so they put me down for a solo at one of the assemblies. I was supposed to play one of those grisly semiclassical things. 'Dance Of The Bridge Trolls' by Glinka, one of those kinds of things. Ridiculous. I figured if I just went out and made up something as I went along, it couldn't be any worse. So that's what I did, and it was a gas.

"It was the first thing I'd enjoyed doing. (I was kind of a walking vegetable as a kid. Amiable but unfocused.) I didn't realize until about 15 years later that you could make a living doing this."

Paul returned home to San Francisco in 1936 and started going to Polytechnic high school. "I wanted to learn French," he said, "and I was kind of thinking of starting clarinet, but they were both at the same time. So I signed up for French and violin. Dad was very drug when I came home with the program. 'With the violin, you'll starve,' he said. 'Violin players are a dime a dozen. And French you don't need. Take clarinet.'"

So Paul started studying clarinet-and Spanish. "Which was kind of a drag last year when we were in Paris," he said. "El bombo grande. Well, you can't win 'em all."

Paul played in the school band, edited the school newspaper, and assiduously dodged all forms of exercise. "I discovered early in life that if you take gym first period, you can go into the wrestling room and sit in the corner and sleep."

But it was not until 1943 that Paul began to play alto. That year, he went into the army. For three years he was stationed in San Francisco with the 253rd AGF band. "It was a great way to spend the war. We expected to get shipped out every month, but it never happened. Somewhere in Washington our file must still be on the floor under a desk somewhere."

There were some good local musicians in the band, notably Dave van Kreidt, a tenor saxophonist and arranger who has been a great friend of Paul's ever since.

One day a friend of Van Kreidt's came through San Francisco. He was a piano player fresh off the ranch, en route overseas as a rifleman and eager to get into the band. His name was Dave Brubeck.

"We had a session in the band room," Paul recalled. "I remember the first tune we played was 'Rosetta.' I was really dazzled by his harmonic approach.

Then, Paul said with that expression that tells you you'd better take him with a grain of salt for a moment, "I went up to him and said, 'Man, like Wigsville! You really grooved me with those nutty changes.' And Brubeck replied, 'White man speak with forked tongue.'"

Whatever Brubeck and Desmond actually did say to each other, they did not meet again until after the war, when Dave was working around San Francisco, mostly at the Geary Cellar with a group called the Three D's. It was led by a tenor player named Darryl Cutler, and the bass player was Norman Bates.

"I went down and sat in," Paul said, "and the musical rapport was very evident and kind of scary. A lot of the things we've done since, we did then, immediately-a lot of the counterpoint things, and it really impressed me. If you think Dave plays far out now, you should have heard him then. He made Cecil Taylor sound like Lester Lanin."

Shortly after that, Paul hired Cutler's group away from him-"at some risk of life and limb; Darryl Cutler was a pretty rugged cat"-to work a few months near Stanford.

"It was a 60-mile ride and we were making about $50 a night. I was splitting it with the guys and paying for the gas too. That's when I decided I really didn't want to be a leader. A lot of things we did later with the quartet began there.

"I've often wondered what would have happened if we'd been in New York at the time-whether it was really as good as I think it was. I have a memory of several nights that seemed fantastic, and I don't feel that way too often. I'd give anything for a tape of one of those nights now, just to see what was really going on.

"I know we were playing a lot of counterpoint on almost every tune, and the general level was a lot more loud, emotional and unsubtle then. I was always screaming away at the top of the horn, and Dave would be constructing something behind me in three keys. Sometimes I had to plead with him to play something more simple behind me.

"It seemed pretty wild at the time; it was one of those few jobs where you really hated to stop-we'd keep playing on the theme until they practically threw us off the stand.

"Anyway, that's where the empathy between Dave and me began, and it's survived a remarkable amount of pulling and pushing in the 11 or so years since.

"Then the Dave Brubeck Octet started, mainly as a Saturday afternoon rehearsal group for the guys studying composition with Milhaud (Brubeck, Van Kreidt, Bill Smith, Dick Collins, and Jack Weeks). I was the only musical illiterate with that group-I wasn't studying with Milhaud.

"I was going to San Francisco State college, studying to be a writer. It was the only major where you could get credit for anything you felt like taking-play-writing, social dancing, basket-weaving, anything. I finally decided writing was like playing jazz-it can be learned, but not taught.

"The social dancing was kind of wild, though, a sort of Arthur Murray for misfits. The girls were all sort of thin and 6 feet tall, and the guys were mostly scrawny with glasses like ice-cubes. We met twice a week in the basement of a Greek church near the school, and they had a hand-wound phonograph and about three records. I don't know how old they were, but on one of them, before the music started, you could hear a voice saying, 'What hath God wrought?'"

Time slipped by, and all of a sudden it was June 1950. "My only jobs that year had been two concerts with the octet and a Mexican wedding," Desmond said. So he decided to take a job with Jack Fina's band. The job got him in New York, with plans in his head to leave the band and go on from there. "But when I arrived in New York," he said, "all that happened was that all the guys I talked to wanted my job with Fina, which was pretty discouraging.

"Meantime, back at the ranch, Brubeck had started the trio with the advice and support of our patron saint, Jimmy Lyons (the a disc jockey, now manager of the Monterey Jazz festival). Dave had also started his own record company, which was really a hurdle back in those pre-LP days. So I went back to San Francisco and stayed there for a while with my nose pressed firmly to the window, and in 1951 we started the quartet."

Even then Paul had a kind of veneration for Brubeck, compounded of affection, admiration, and respect. In answer to the oft-made observation that "Dave never would have made it without Paul Desmond," Paul says stoutly, "I never would have made it without Dave. He's amazing harmonically, and he can be a fantastic accompanist. You can play the wrongest note possible in any chord, and he can make it sound like the only right one.

"I still feel more kinship musically with Dave than with anyone else, although it may not always be evident. But when he's at his best, it's really something to hear. A lot of people don't know this, because in addition to the kind of fluctuating level of performance that most jazz musicians give, Dave has a real aversion to working things out, and a tendency to take the things he can do for granted and spend most of his time trying to do other things. This is okay for people who have heard him play at his best, but sometimes mystifying to those who haven't.

"However, once in a while somebody who had no use for Dave previously comes in and catches a really good set and leaves looking kind of dazed."

Because of his affection for Brubeck, Paul feels it sharply when his friend is criticized. And the Brubeck group has run into perhaps more than its fair share of criticism. Yet Paul usually gets of unscathed. Ira Gitler recently wrote a stinging review of a new quartet record. Yet he said, "Paul Desmond's playing is another proof that jazz has many shades of expression, that you can communicate deep emotion without histrionics. However, I'd like to hear him play a set with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims; I think it would prove stimulating."

And, though Desmond has characterized himself as the "disembodied saxophonist of the Brubeck group," John S. Wilson wrote after the group's performance this year at Newport, "Desmond seems to be the bellwether of the quartet. When he is uninspired, the entire group is affected, largely because Brubeck seems to push harder, bringing out the worst side of his playing. But when Paul is at the top of his form, Dave really relaxes."

Desmond seems to command an enormous amount of respect among fellow musicians, though by no means all of them. Miles Davis, who has put down a good many of his fellow artists, has said loftily, "I just don't like the sound of an alto played that way."

More specific in his criticism was alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. "Desmond's playing is pleasant-progressive-but not particularly moving to me. As far as technique is concerned, he has wonderful control of his instrument. But then, so has Dick Stabile. I feel that his playing is sort of a launching pad for Dave's music. But it's very lyrical, he plays good ideas, and they are his own ideas."

But Julian Adderley-who is Paul's arch competitor for top alto spot in the various polls, most of which Paul has won in recent years-said, "I believe that Paul Desmond shares with Benny Carter the title of most lyrical altoist. He is a profoundly beautiful player." Sonny Stitt, another of today's top altoists, said, "He plays good music. He's not on Cloud 9 all the time, like some of those guys. I like him very much."

And Dizzy Gillespie, a sort of father figure for a great many of today's jazzmen, said, "Paul and Dave sure do something for one another. The ideas that Paul gets are in the same groove as Dave's They seem to have terrific rapport. It takes a lot to get such cohesion between two people in a unit."

Perhaps the best appraisal of Paul Desmond and his music comes from the man who knows both better than anyone else-Dave Brubeck.

"I've heard him play more than anyone else has," Dave said, "and even after all these years, he still surprises me. There are so many imitators of Charlie Parker, and to me Paul is one of the few true individuals on his instrument. Musicians will put one idol before them and think that everything should revolve around this person and that everyone should play his way-and this curbs individuality.

"Paul's big contribution is going to be that he didn't copy Charlie Parker.

"I believe that Paul and I make a good team. We've had many conflicts and we will probably have many more, but there are a lot of things we haven't done yet and can do if we can stick together and put up with each other."

Yet even though Paul finds his association with Dave so satisfying (and vice versa) there are constant, if subtle, pressures on the altoist to strike out on his own. Desmond has made notably few recordings with anyone but Brubeck, leading many musicians to wonder-like critic Gitler-how he would sound in another context.

Of those few discs Desmond has made with others (Gerry Mulligan, Don Elliott), his favorite is one made recently for the Warner Bros. label. Working with him were Percy Heath, Connie Kay, and Jim Hall. Though suspicions are occasionally voiced that anyone who has been a sideman for 10 years would run into difficulty as leader, guitarist Hall's comments on the date would tend to indicate the contrary.

"I learned a lot about Paul," Hall said, "due to the fact that each of us had to give a high-level performance at the same time as the other fellow. I was very impressed with his musicianship, especially his ability to play a long melody line through a series of choruses. We made several takes, and every one of his takes was almost perfect; we were the ones who messed up.

"But aside from the music, he's such a charming guy, and though he may not be forceful in the same way some musicians are, I know that he knows what he wants from a group. He may not stomp and shout, but he gets things done just the same."

Paul continues to have the same lack of enthusiasm for leadership that he did when he hired the Darryl Cutler group away and tried the role for a while.

But the time may come when he will give in.

"I guess it's inevitable that I'll have my own group one of these days," he said, "if for no other reason than that Dave will probably wander off into other fields and not do as much playing as he's doing now.

"The problem the will be to find guys I can communicate with musically and get along with the rest of the time. The ideal, for me, is a group with a lot of co-operative playing going on, as opposed to the procession of virtuosi, if that's the word I want. Guys who can improve together in such a way that the whole turns out to be greater than the sum of all the parts. I have that feeling with Dave a lot, which is one reason I've hung around this long, also with Mulligan and Hall.

"Finding the right guys, I think, is really the hardest part of being a leader. The rest gets to be largely routine and resigning yourself to being a bad guy part of the time. And a certain amount of patience, fortitude, and delicate negotiation is necessary even for 'illustrious' sidemen like me."

Whether or not he does strike out as a leader, however, Paul has more than enough to keep him occupied-or preoccupied, as the case may be. He is pursuing his own musical ideal, and his distinctive sound-light, liquid, at times mournful-will continue to be an important voice in jazz.

"I love the way Miles plays," he said. "I still think the hardest thing of all to do is to come up with things that are simple, melodic, and yet new. Until fairly recently, most of the landmarks in jazz history could be written out and played by practically anybody after they had been done. It just took a long time for them to be thought of. There's a lot more going on now in terms of complexity, but it's still a long time between steps.

"Complexity can get to be a trap, too. I think it gets to be more fun to play than to listen to. You can have a ball developing a phrase, inverting it, playing it in different keys and times and all. But it's really more introspective than communicative. Like a crossword puzzle compared to a poem.

"What would kill me the most on the jazz scene these days would be for everybody to go off in a corner and sound like himself. Let a hundred flowers bloom. Diversityville. There's enough conformity in the rest of this country without having it prevail in jazz, too.

"I should mention in connection with anything critical I say about anyone else that about 80 percent of the things I play I hate to listen to afterwards. I kind of know what I'd like to be doing ultimately on the horn, but it's hard to make any progress while you're traveling. Hard enough even in one place, as far as that goes.

"But the things I'm after musically are clarity, emotional communication on a not-too-obvious level, the kind of form in a chorus that doesn't hit you over the head but is there if you look for it, humor, and construction that sounds logical in an unexpected way.

"That and a good, dependable high F-sharp and I'll be happy."