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Paul Desmond

Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck,
October 8, 1954.

Paul Desmond (November 5, 1924 - May 30, 1977) came to prominence as the saxophone player of the Dave Brubeck quartet (he even penned their biggest hit, Take Five) from 1951 (when the quartet was formed) until 1967. His alto saxophone tone owed nothing to the great alto player of the time, Charlie Parker; instead his was a clear, light, floating sound which many tried unsuccessfully to imitate. He loved gentle ballads and could float off into dreamy or syrupy solos (depending on point of view) unless woken up by his bandmates. Much of the success of the classic Dave Brubeck quartet was due to the superposition of his light, airy style and Brubeck's relatively heavy polytonal piano work.

Desmond also had collaborations with Gerry Mulligan, Jim Hall and others over the years; after the break-up of the Brubeck quartet in 1967, he retired for a while, then began to resurface in occasional reunions with Brubeck, Mulligan, Hall, a Christmas concert with the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1971, and collaborations with Ed Bickert and others. His gift for improvised counterpoint is perhaps most notable on the two albums he recorded with Mulligan ("Mulligan-Desmond Quartet" and "Two of a Mind").

Other than his playing, he was known for his wit, as recorded on his own liner notes to his solo albums and by others' recollections. He was rumoured for several years to be writing an autobiography, but it never showed up. He died in 1977, not of his heavy alcohol habit but of cancer caused by his smoking; he was ironically pleased by the condition of his liver as revealed during the tests. "Pristine, one of the great livers of our time. Awash in Dewars and full of health." His last concert was with Brubeck in February 1977, in New York. His fans didn't know that he was already dying.