That Night at Elaine’s

Shortly after Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond came out, we threw a book party at Elaine’s Restaurant. In his last decade, Paul spent a good deal of his time at that way station of culture and good times on Second Avenue in Manhattan, hanging out with writers and thinking about finishing the book he barely started. Malcolm Harris of Parkside Publications, Dave and Iola Brubeck and I co-hosted the party. Elaine Kaufman, her chief of staff Diane Becker and their crew are known as book party experts, and they made this one special, complete with Desmond solos floating through the room. There were sixty-odd—and some merely interesting—guests. Most of them knew Paul. Some of them played with him. His two favorite guitarists were there. Jim Hall came up from Greenwich Village. Ed Bickert, to everyone’s amazement, left his seclusion in Toronto and came all the way to New York just for the occasion, his gorgeous daughter in tow. Don Thompson, who played with Bickert in Desmond’s last quartet, showed up with the great alto saxophonist John Handy. They were playing at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Handy’s reunited quintet, the one that stunned the jazz world in the sixties. Thompson said he’s been trying to persuade Ed to start playing again. Bickert says it’s too much work.

Arnold Roth, whose incomparable drawings grace the end papers and several pages of Take Five, was there with his wife Caroline. They met Desmond in Philadelphia in the days when the Brubeck Quartet took turns sleeping in the back of Dave’s cavernous old Kaiser Vagabond. The alto saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, who played with Paul in Alvino Rey’s hotel band in 1951, was there, as were the writers Jack Richardson, Nat Hentoff, Whitney Balliett, Ira Gitler, Will Friedwald, Bruce Jay Friedman and James Lincoln Collier. The great singer Jackie Cain reminisced with bassist Bill Crow about Paul’s playing in a medley of Brubeck’s “Summer Song” and Gershwin’s “Summertime” on her and Roy Kral’s Time and Love. Here’s how she tells it in Take Five.

So, at the proper moment, Paul was there, ready. He was warmed up and played it once. He played it so beautifully. I think if he had done other takes, it would have been just as wonderful, but it was so great that there was no need to do another take. So, we stopped and listened to it, and he was happy. We were all happy, in fact delighted, with it. Then he said, “Well, what’s next?” But that was it. That was the only thing he’d been brought in for, to do that one song.

Brubeck entertained The New York Times’ Campbell Robertson with stories about his cowboy youth. Elaine told Robertson about the night Desmond went backward off a bar stool and hit the floor without spilling a drop. George Avakian, who produced many of Desmond’s and Brubeck’s albums, beamed at being with so many of his old friends. Rick Breitenfeld, the cousin who immeasurably enriched the book by unearthing information about Paul’s growing up, circulated chatting with other characters from Desmond’s life. Jean Bach, doyenne of the New York jazz scene, came with Charles Graham, the audio genius who kept Paul’s sound system in shape.
As the evening was winding down, I looked across the dinner table at Brubeck. From the speakers, through the restaurant babble, he and Desmond were at Storyville playing their incomparable, intuitive,1952 duet on “You Go To My Head.” Dave was leaning back with his eyes closed, smiling.

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Reddit