Paul Desmond’s 84th

Yesterday was Paul Desmond’s eighty-fourth birthday. Years after Paul’s death, his guitar companion Jim Hall said, “He would have been a great old man,”  The last birthday Desmond celebrated, his fifty-second, fell on Thanksgiving, 1976. He spent it with Jim and his wife Jane at their daughter’s tiny apartment in New York City. He had taken a hiatus from his lung cancer therapy to play the Monterey Jazz Festival and an engagement at Barnaby Conrad’s El Matador in San Francisco. From Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond, this is an account of that Thanksgiving day. The photographs, never before published, are courtesy of Devra Hall.

Back in New York, Desmond resumed his chemotherapy treatments and spent time with friends. Jim and Jane Hall’s daughter, Devra, had been graduated from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusets and was living on 89th Street between West End and Riverside Drive. Her mother announced to her that now that she had her own place, Devra would be hosting Thanksgiving dinner. Thanksgiving and Desmond’s 52nd birthday came on the same day, November 25, 1976.

“I told her, ‘Okay, but you have to bring Paul,'” Devra said. “I knew what Mom would do, so I went to the market on Broadway and got this turkey and, mind you, my kitchen was

Desmond TG 1.jpg

 the size of a small bathroom. To open the oven, you had to stand outside the kitchen door. This is New York, my first apartment and my first turkey, I’m growing up and very pleased with myself. I followed all the instructions, turned on the oven and put it in. We all knew Paul was sick. I think he had just finished a chemo treatment, but he said he felt up to it, and he and my folks came to this tiny one-room apartment. There was no bed, just a pullout couch; it was all folded up. Paul was sitting in the little brown canvas
sling chair. There was an upright piano that my dad had bought me for my birthday, a chest of drawers and a drop leaf table at which we had dinner. That was it for furniture. Well, they’re sitting there. My mother says, ‘So, how’s the bird? I say, ‘Well, go check it out.’ She opens the oven–I couldn’t go in there with her; there was no room–and she closes the door and she’s laughing. You know, I’m mortified. I can’t imagine what’s wrong.

Desmond TG 2.jpg“Paul’s saying, ‘What’s wrong, didn’t she turn on the oven?’ Jim can’t decide whether I’m going to cry or what. It turns out that I had put the turkey in the oven upside down. Don’t the legs go on the bottom? I mean, isn’t that how the bird stands? We later determined that I was ahead of my time. Today, that’s the chef’s secret to keeping the meat moist. It turned out fine. It was a very quiet dinner. Paul was not feeling well, but he was clearly happy not to be home alone. He didn’t have to say a word around my folks. They talked a blue streak, usually, but he was just very comfortable. My fondest recollection is that I made him dinner on his last birthday.”

The senior Halls and Desmond went back to Jim and Jane’s apartment when they left Devra’s, and on the way stopped at the Village Vanguard. Thelonious Monk was performing there. Between sets, they all gathered in the Vanguard’s kitchen, the closest thing the club has to a Green Room.

“It was the most coherent conversation I ever had with Thelonious,” Hall said, “in the kitchen with Paul and me and Thelonious. I had a sort of nodding acquaintance with Monk, but he and Paul really connected. I’m not even sure what they talked about, just standing around in that kitchen, going through old memories and things. It was nice.”

To listen to The Sound Of A Dry Martini, producer Paul Conley’s classic National Public Radio documentary about Desmond, click here.  

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  1. Floyd Patrick says

    I recently read your book on Paul Desmond and found it to be very informative and an excellent read. The old letters are priceless. I have been a long time fan of Dave Brubeck and the quartet and after reading your book, I have come to appreciate the music and life of Paul Desmond even more than I did before.

  2. Steven Cerra says

    Thanks for posting this piece on Paul Desmond. What a great rememberance.
    I think I’ll spend part of the day listening to Paul’s music.

  3. says

    Thanks for those reminiscences on Paul Desmond. I’m a big Desmond fan. It’s hard to imagine what the Dave Brubeck Quartet would have been like with a saxman other than Desmond. But the combo of Paul and Dave was truly magical.
    Incidentally, the CD “The Sound of a Dry Martini”* by Brett Jensen is the perfect tribute. Maybe a little too perfect. Jensen mimics Desmond so well you can almost imagine he IS Desmond. Anyway, thank you for the post.

  4. Mike Milner says

    Thanks for a very touching story. I just recently purchased Paul Desmond Quartet Edmonton Festival ’76 (Gambit Records). It is a great recording of Paul with 3 other Canadian musicians; Ed Bickert on guitar, Don Thompson on bass and Jerry Fuller on drums. I would highly recommend this recording to Desmond fans, it’s over 60 minutes in length and the recording is outstanding. As a bonus, the liner notes include a transcript of a radio interview with Paul right after the concert. The interview contains some wonderful anecdotes about Paul and Dave Brubeck, including a very funny story about Benny Goodman coming to see them in a club in the early 50’s.

  5. Dean Arnold says

    Doug, has anyone ever produced a video documentary about Desmond? Is there much video footage of Desmond? (Playing sax, probably yes, but what about speaking and interviews?)
    (Desmond was a guest on Mary Lou Finlay’s CBC conversation program in 1976. Tape of the program exists. There is a snippet of him speaking on a 1950s CBS Reports segment about the Brubeck quartet. As far as I know, that’s about it for TV interviews with Paul. He was one of the guests on a program I did on WDSU-TV in New Orleans during JazzFest in 1969, but the videotape of that show disappeared long ago. Hedrick Smith did a documentary called Discovering Dave Brubeck that ran on PBS in 2001. It included a segment on the classic Brubeck quartet that, of course, covered Desmond’s importance.—DR)