Every November 25th since Rifftides debuted in 2005, we observe Paul Desmond’s birthday. He was born in San Francisco on this date in 1924, which, that year, was Thanksgiving. To the left, we see Desmond six months before he died in May of 1977. He’s watching Jim Hall carve the turkey that Jim’s daughter Devra prepared when she hosted her parents and Paul for a 1976 Thanksgiving dinner at her New York apartment. Longtime recording partners, Desmond and Hall were close friends. One of their rare experiences playing together outside a studio came in 1969 when President Richard Nixon celebrated Duke Ellington’s 70th birthday with a lavish tribute at the White House.
The Voice Of America’s Willis Conover put together the band for the tribute. Below you see its members rehearsing in the East Room the afternoon of the party, April 29, 1969. From left to right: Hank Jones, Jim Hall, Milt Hinton, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, Louie Bellson, Clark Terry, J.J. Johnson, Bill Berry, Urbie Green. Guest artists included Dave Brubeck, Billy Taylor, Earl Hines and the singers Joe Williams and Mary Mayo.
Mulligan and Desmond rehearsed Mulligan’s intricate arrangement of “Prelude to a Kiss.” The performance is included in a recording of that night’s music, finally released in 2002. From the Desmond biography, here is some of the description of that evening’s concert and aftermath:
It lasted an hour and a half and consisted of twenty-seven Ellington or Strayhorn pieces, several of them worked into medleys. Solos were distributed so that all of the musicians were featured. I was in the audience directly behind Cab Calloway, who was sitting next to Ellington. Duke had been lounging comfortably as he listened. He sat bolt upright when, on “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” with Brubeck at the piano, Desmond played a stunningly accurate impression of Johnny Hodges, Ellington’s star alto player of forty-one years. “Hey,” Duke said, and turned to Calloway with a grin, a reaction that pleased Desmond enormously when I described it.
Desmond was not happy about a medley that featured him on Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge.” When they came to the song’s middle section, the bassist, Milt Hinton, forgot the complicated harmonic changes and went into an unrelated pattern. Desmond managed to keep his composure and preserve the melody line. It is unlikely that non-musicians in the audience knew anything had gone wrong, but Paul was convinced that it had been a disaster. After the concert, he headed for the open bar and stayed near it the rest of the night, which turned out to be long. The Nixons headed for bed, but the President urged everyone to stay and have a good time. White House staffers sprang into action and cleared the East Room for dancing, and a jam session ensued. Desmond’s mood lightened eventually, though he rejected all entreaties to play. I hung out at the bar with him and Urbie Green, but went on to other conversations after the Dewars competition moved out of my league. When the party broke up between 2:30 and 3:00 a.m., I wished Paul and Urbie a good night as they helped one another, unsteadily, through the entrance hall, down the White House steps and into a taxi. Later, Desmond was able to see humor in the “Chelsea Bridge” incident, but that night he worked at forgetting it.
In conclusion, I quote, not for the first time, what Brubeck told me years after Desmond’s death: “Boy, I sure miss Paul Desmond.”