The personality of Paul Desmond
First part of a meeting of Les Tomkins and the wisecracking saxist in 1963
The wit that often shows itself in his playing is very evident in the personality of Paul Desmond. This became clear to me in a between–shows discussion with the alto–key figure of the Brubeck four. While that famous saxophone reposed on a nearby table, its owner smiled as he said, of humour: “It was my major in college.”
He gave his reply to a stock question. “I don’t like to get up early in the morning—so I decided early in life to be a musician.”
When was this? “During the Crimean War, I think.”
I persisted: “What age were you when you began playing professionally?” “Oh, fifteen or sixteen. I am now seventy–three.”
More or less seriously, Paul continued the Desmond saga. The sound of the alto is something I’ve always loved in jazz. “Me too” he said. His choice of alto was “sort of accidental. I played clarinet first and went from there to alto. This was long before I ever got into jazz.
“By the time I was involved with jazz I was also very involved with the alto. I tried tenor a few times but I didn’t like the way I sounded on it—although I love to hear other guys play tenor.”
His decision to play full–time was made when “there was no faint possibility of earning a living playing jazz”. He didn’t think there ever would be—but eventually there was.
“I never studied music formally. I had one course, an introduction to harmony, at College—and some piano lessons. I had some alto lessons when I was very young and that was all. I spent a lot of time listening to records and looking over other players’ shoulders.
“Most of the guys in the original Octet were students of Darius Milhaud—along with Dave. I’m one of the ones who wasn’t. I’m the musical illiterate from the Octet.”
We know that the Desmond style is highly literate and that he has been called “Konitz with warmth”.
Pointing out that other musicians had inspired him as much, Paul admitted: “I was, and am, an admirer of Lee’s, What appealed to me was his individuality—during an era when that was very scarce. There was a period when I was more in that bag than I have been since. I liked his sound and his thinking—and the fact that he was thinking.”
Does Paul feel that his own sound has changed much over the years? “Since I began, yes. When I started I played entirely differently. When I first played with Dave in San Francisco it was a lot louder and more raucous. For the Quartet it has to be a sound that will fit with the piano. An ordinary saxophone sound doesn’t always make it in those tight counterpoint passages.”
This prompted me to say that I sadly miss counterpoint in recent Brubeck performances.
“I do, too.” Paul agreed. “We seem to have gotten more away from that than I would like. There are a few things we still do, such as “Brandenburg Gate”. Not too many, though. We’ll have to start doing some more of them. As a matter of fact, I just finished another record with Gerry Mulligan on Victor which is very largely counterpoint. Not quite as strict as we do with the Quartet but very much a loose, two–line approach. Simultaneous playing. I was very happy with it.”
Like his earlier Verve meeting with Mulligan, the material used was all standards. “Some of them thinly disguised as originals. This one has ‘Stardust’, ‘All The Things You Are’, ‘The Way You Look Tonight’, ‘E Flat Blues’ and a few others. ‘Look For The Silver Lining’ is one of the disguised ones. Almost all those tunes I’ve done at least once before. Mulligan is the world’s champion accompanist on an instrument other than piano. He just finds those lines that keep going. It’s like being carried along the street in a large double bed!”
It is interesting to note that of the five albums now in existence show–casing Desmond independent of Brubeck, four are by four–piece groups—the two with Mulligan, his initial excursion on Fantasy with Don Elliott on mellophone and two rhythm, and one for Warner Brothers with Jim Hall, Percy Heath and Connie Kay, titled “Paul Desmond And His Friends”.
As Paul puts it: “I’m sort of addicted to two horns and two rhythm. It’s an ideal framework for very loose playing.”
One result of the two–records–a–year contract he has with RCA Victor is “Desmond Blue”, arranged by Bob Prince and also featuring Jim Hall’s guitar. (“I love to work with him. He’s very adaptable—a fantastic musician.“) This is Paul’s first recording with strings.
“I thought about it for a long time before we did it, because there are a great number of traps you can fall into when you record with strings—and I tried to stay out of as many as I could. That ‘swinging strings’ thing usually doesn’t get it. That’s one problem. I don’t think strings should swing in the first place. They should be just a background.”
The dilemma of the creative artist competing with the busy musician is ever–present for Paul Desmond. He would like to write more—for the Quartet and for other groups. So far he has composed “Take Five”, “Eleven Four” and “one or two odd, obscure things here and there”.
When it comes to making a record of his own, he has to try and put it together in the Quartet’s off moments. “Usually we work about three or four nights a week out of New York. By the time you drive up to New England, play, come back and send out the laundry, half the week has gone.” The tight Brubeck schedule also means that he doesn’t get to play live jobs elsewhere. “I could book a job maybe for a month ahead and suddenly Dave would come up with a Wednesday night in Kansas City—and that would be it. So I just limit my outside activities to records. ” However, there is no dissatisfaction in these words.
There is a very real reason why the Brubeck–Desmond musical association has continued for so many years—the great affinity they share. “It’s always been there. Actually, there was as much there the first time we ever played together as there was tonight. It’s sort of an instant rapport. “I suppose we would have to run into each other eventually, no matter where we’d started out. But I’m glad that it happened as soon as it did.”
A key to the contentment within the Brubeck Quartet is to be found in the varied interpretations of any one theme. There is really no such thing as a final performance. “It keeps changing from night to night. It seems to go in waves or cycles. You start playing a tune and for a while it has a nice freshness that usually more than compensates for whatever unfamiliarity with the changes may exist. And you can get into a rut on it for a while. Then suddenly some night you may just happen to feel good and you find a completely different set of doors to go through.”
Paul likened the whole business of playing to “being in a vast castle full of doors and all the doors lead to halls with other doors in them. So some nights it seems like everywhere you look it’s nothing but open doors—and you can keep wandering through places you’ve never been—indefinitely. Again, there are nights when every door is shut and you’re just out there in the hall by yourself. ”
The Brubeck group spontaneity can be so cohesive as to appear to have been worked out in advance. In fact, rehearsals are kept to an absolute minimum. “We rehearse when we have to get new numbers together for a record session. And even then a lot of records are rehearsed and planned, as well as made, in the studio. Most of the ‘Time Out’ series has been done that way—not the ‘Time Out’ album itself, although ‘Take Five’ was. The following two albums, ‘Time Further Out’ and ‘Countdown,’ were all new to us when we went into the studio. There’s no rehearsal for individual concerts. It’s in the book—until we forget it. Like, if we had to do some of the things from, say, ‘Eurasia’, we would have to go back and learn them all over again. Some things keep going through the years—like ‘St Louis Blues’. On the old Earl Hines record of ‘St Louis Blues’ they said ‘Play it till 1962’—and we did!”
As with other great jazzmen, I found Desmond modest in discussing his own performance. I asked him if he did a lot of practice. “Unfortunately, no. Joe is very good at practising all the time, Gene also, and Dave to a certain extent, whenever he can. But I’ve never been able to make any progress just practising. So when we don’t work every night I get rusty very quickly. This is one of the main problems these days, because working concerts is not like working clubs and it’s very hard to keep in shape.
“I feel the necessity for practice, but the results don’t generally justify it. I have a tendency to get bugged by some small thing when I start practising and do one of those Stephen Laycock retroactive bits for five or six hours, ending up playing one interval and working on the intonation or something. After about four hours I come to the job and I can’t play a note! So I’m really better off without practising. I either have to just make it playing the job or forget it. There isn’t time then to get introspective or critical and tear anything apart. You just have to keep going.”
His explanation of how his technical facility came about: “I’ve been playing jobs for a long time—let’s see—twenty years or so. It’s sort of gathered like barnacles.”
Copyright © 1963, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.