Paul Desmond, 33 Years Later

Desmond has been in my thoughts today, back to the weeks before his death of lung cancer in 1977 at the age of 52. We talked frequently during that time. Here are two excerpts from Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond, then a song that Paul cherished. He and Dave Brubeck played it together nearly from the beginning of their partnership.

A few days before Memorial Day, I got a call in San Antonio. “Hi, it’s me, Desmond,” he began, cheery as ever. After a few minutes we faded into an unusual conversational impasse, a series of commonplace exchanges that reflected what he knew and I suspected. He suggested that we both get mildly bombed on Friday evening and he would call me from Elaine’s.
Jenna had planned a trip to London for late May. Desmond encouraged her to take it. (Steve) Forster was looking after him, helping him get through the days. There was little that doctors could do.
“I was just falling to bits,” Jenna said. “I needed to go away. The day before I left, I went to say goodbye and, frail as he was, he insisted that Steve take him downstairs to the camera shop to buy me one of those Polaroid instant things that had just come out. I got to London and, of course, rang him immediately, and he sounded reasonably good. We had a nice chat. I said I would talk to him the next day. And he said, ‘No, no, don’t call tomorrow. Ring me Tuesday.’ I’ve got friends coming tomorrow, and I want you to relax and enjoy yourself.'”
“When I left on Friday,” Forster said, “I kind of knew that would be the last time I would see him. I felt it, but I wasn’t sure and, in a way, I didn’t want to admit it. But…he was tired. He knew.”
On May 30, Memorial Day, Desmond’s cleaning woman was unable to wake him.

Jack Richardson recalled that Marian McPartland said what many of Desmond’s friends were thinking, “It’s just like Paul to slip quietly away when everyone’s out of town, not to bother anybody.”

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


  1. Dick McGarvin says

    Yesterday, May 30th, while doing some work around the house, I put on a couple of my favorite Brubeck recordings. No particular reason…or so I thought. It’s just what I felt like hearing. When “These Foolish Things” from JAZZ AT OBERLIN came on, I stopped what I was doing – I had to – sat down and did nothing but listen to that marvelous Desmond solo I’ve heard so many times before. It wasn’t until this morning that I was reminded by your Rifftides post that May 30th was the day Paul died. Thank you, Doug, for the remembrance and the video of “For All We Know”, another great Desmond performance.

  2. says

    By coincidence, I was just reading your piece in a ’62 Downbeat, “at wit’s end” with Desmond as he fielded questions from fans. Nice to see/hear Paul so full of life and (restrained) lip. As your big bio demonstrates, there was really no end to his wit.

  3. Dr. Mike Baughan says

    Thanks Mr. Ramsey, for another memory of The great Desmond on Memorial Day.

  4. Dick Vartanian says

    An absolutely ASTOUNDING performance. Paul taught me this tune when we were on our Feather River Inn gig and we played it a lot but I never heard it like that. There is nothing I could do or say that would convey how I really felt about either Paul or his playing. I learned a LOT from him.
    (Mr. Vartanian was the trumpet player in the band with Desmond in the northern California mountains in the summer of 1949. The full story is in Chapter 13 of Take Five—DR)

  5. Kenny Harris says

    Thanks for the wonderful Paul Desmond video today. Tears rolled down my cheeks.

  6. Svetlana Ilicheva says

    On May 30th night (it came much earlier here in Russia, as you know) I was listening to Paul’s solos for a long time to commemorate the sad occasion and exchanged notes with my American friends from the Desmond Fan Club. Yes, “the cat was gone” but he left us his wonderful “grin” to enjoy for as long as we live. Thank you for the video, Doug.

  7. says

    Thanks, Doug.
    We are remembering. It was just such beautiful day as this is, warm and sunny, but summer not yet full blown.
    This weekend the family gathered in remembrance of Michael*, also. I read a poem by Wendell Berry by the graveside, while we all joined hands to make a circle. We ranged in age from 97 (Cathy’s mother in law) to 4 (Cathy’s granddaughter). The poem says it all.
    We clasp the hands of those that go before us
    And the hands of those who come after us.
    We enter the little circle of each other’s arms
    And the larger circle of lovers,
    Whose hands are joined in a dance,
    And the larger circle of all creatures,
    Passing in and out of life,
    Who move also in a dance,
    To a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it
    Except in fragments.
    (*Michael was Dave and Iola Brubeck’s second son. He was a particular friend of Paul Desmond——DR)

  8. Charlton Price says

    That’s so poignant.
    He seems to be struggling quite hard to blow air into the horn.

  9. says

    Thank you, yes, for that video and all else you have done for Paul Desmond. I think Desmond has led me through my life, really, setting a standard, teaching me as I went my way. One of my greatest regrets is that I never met him.

  10. says

    Paul Desmond was the very first saxophonist I have listened to as a teenager. His melodic concept was sophisticated, but nevertheless easy enough to comprehend for a 16-year old jazz beginner.
    To recognize how trickily he actually has constructed his solos, this needed more mature, more experienced ears though. There were times when I tried to imitate his and Stan Getz’s sounds on the trumpet.
    I still have some cassettes with one of my early jazz trios where you can clearly hear that. Sounds quite funny.
    “For All We Know” is just beautiful, and Paul is sounding as seemingly effortless as ever.
    By the way, this video is an excerpt from German TV, a concert with the Dave Brubeck Group, starring also Gerry Mulligan, at the Jazzfest Berlin. Funny clothes then, huh?

  11. Svetlana Ilicheva says

    I thought it might be of interest for you to know that in a small Russian town’s concert hall at a distance of about 50 km from Moscow they play Paul Desmond’s hit and as far as I can judge (certainly not being an expert!) they do it quite well. So I took the liberty to send you the URL of a video posted on YouTube a couple of months ago.My friends and I were at this jazz concert and enjoyed it immensely.The one on the right (grey-haired) is Alexander Vinitsky (a guitar player and a composer) and on the left (with a hat) Artyom Fadeyev, his former student and now a colleague.