Desmond And The Cats

Paul Desmond died 37 years ago today. Every year, as the anniversary approaches, my cerebellum senses it and the brain starts dialing up episodes. Playwright Jack Richardson (1934-2012) got it right when he spoke at the memorial service about what it was like to be Paul’s friend:

I found him the best company of anyone I’d ever known in my life. I found him the most loyal friend I’ve ever had in my life. I found him the most artistic person I’ve ever known in my life. His leaving will make this planet a smaller and darker place for everyone.

Rereading that, I recalled Richardson, Desmond and me ambling through Greenwich Village, talking and laughing in some anonymous bar, sitting in The Guitar listening to Jim Hall, hailing cabs at two in the morning. And every day, I remember Desmond and the cats because I recently took out of storage a painting that now hangs on a wall of our music room. It triggers the memory of a conversation at our house in Portland, Oregon, in 1965. This is the painting.

Cats Barbara Jones

Here’s the story as it appeared in Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond.

During the Portland visit, Paul joined my wife, infant son and me for lunch at home—a late lunch, of course. He gazed at a large painting on the living room wall, an oil by Barbara Jones of four cats stalking a mouse, and said, ‘Ah, the perfect album cover for when I record with the Modern Jazz Quartet.’ I pointed out that the mouse was mechanical, with a wind-up key on its side.

‘In that case,” he said, ‘Cannonball will have to make the record.’Des head

In truth, Desmond admired Cannonball Adderley, and the feeling was mutual. In a Down Beat blindfold test, Adderley referred to Desmond as ‘a profoundly beautiful player.’

Paul did eventually record with the MJQ, on Christmas night, 1971, at Town Hall in Manhattan, a few blocks down Sixth Avenue from his apartment. He and John Lewis had been mutual admirers and dining companions for years, but had never before performed together. Here are a couple of excerpts from my Down Beat review of the concert.

Desmond has recorded frequently with Percy Heath and copiously with Connie Kay. When he walked on stage their faces lit up in proprietary grins. Lewis also seemed to be anticipating the occasions, crouching over the keyboard, hands at the ready. Milt Jackson looked vaguely skeptical, but that expression is chronic.

…Then came the piece that should have lasted forever, a blues, “Bags’ Groove.” Desmond applied long lines and that remarkable sense of when to change pace and came up with his most interesting solo of the night, swinging hard. When his solo had ended, there wasn’t an immobile foot in the house.

A recording of the full MJQ-Desmond concert has been in and out of circulation, with CD copies and LPs sometimes going for as much as $130. It now seems to be available both as an MP3 download and a CD.

Years ago when we were discussing his friend and musical companion of decades, Dave Brubeck summed it up for a lot of us:

“Boy, I sure miss Paul Desmond.”

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


  1. Dr. Mike Baughan says

    Many are raising a Dewars in honor of Desmond’s passing. Thanks for the great story Doug!

  2. Светлана says

    Thank you, Doug, for a very nice remembrance note. According to a many- year habit, on this day I listen to the P.D. music and re-read some chapter(s) of your “Take Five”. Today I am re-reading Chapter 23 experiencing once again the excitement produced by the description of their recording in the studio and the “Audrey” story. And the picture of Paul in a joyful mood at the piano is my favorite. They say that one is alive until he is remembered. I am sure Paul Desmond will be alive for years and years to come by many jazz lovers..

  3. Jeff Sultanof says

    There are some artists whose work becomes more and more profound and beautiful with each listening. Desmond is one of those artists. I only hope that the general listener hears and knows his work beyond “Take Five.”

  4. dick vartanian says

    I’m sure I didn’t realize it at that time, but having Paul as an important influence in my early life was fortunate indeed. No one did more for me musically when we were together in high school and in our early days as professional musicians and good friends. That was an association I will never forget

    • Doug Ramsey says

      Mr. Vartanian and Paul were classmates and fellow members of the Polytechnic High School dance band in San Francisco. Later, they played together at San Francisco State College and in Dick Johnson’s band at the Feather River Inn in the Sierra Nevada mountains. See chapter 13 of Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond.

  5. Mathias Hermann says

    Thanks for remembering, Doug. Any word as to the book Dave and Iola were working on?
    Several months before Dave died, he and Russell Gloyd were working on a box set of unreleased DBQ tunes. Have you heard anything about that?

    Thanks again for thinking of Paul.

    • Doug Ramsey says

      If I come up with information on the book or the box set, Rifftides will bring you the news.

  6. Ted O'Reilly says

    That’s a lovely record, one I’ve enjoyed since its original release. It was suggested at the time that the recording was somewhat spontaneous, even that it was recorded on a cassette rather than professional equipment. Do you know the whole story, Doug?

    • Doug Ramsey says

      It’s the first I’ve heard of that, Ted. Rifftides readers with information about the recording circumstance are encouraged to share it.

  7. Kenny Harris says

    Even though I only knew Paul for a very short time, I reiterate the words of Dave Brubeck.

  8. GATIEN says

    Merci pour cette pensée qui fait que Paul Desmond n’a toujours pas rejoint la fosse commune du temps

  9. Wayne Tucker says

    Any Desmond fan misses him, but I still listen to him so much, especially the Mosaic box with Jim Hall, that the absolute beauty of his playing cuts the sadness of his way-too-early passing.

  10. says

    Thanks for the Paul remembrance. I had the pleasure of standing backstage at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1977 and chatting with Paul and Jimmy Lyons. Paul then went on stage and played “Emily.” Jimmy and I shared a few tears because we knew he would be gone soon…too soon.

  11. Terence Smith says

    It’s so interesting to read the comments of those who knew Paul Desmond.
    His personality seems to match his solos, musical sound, and interpretive
    genius, as if all these things are of a piece.

    “Bags’ Groove” from the Christmas 1971 concert with the MJQ is on YouTube right now. And
    we here are lucky enough to own the entire recording, not knowing its rarity.
    I found it on a cassette tape.

    Desmond’s recorded music always clarifies something about Doug Ramsey’s famous painting: Paul Desmond IS “one of the cats.” I’m not sure who the mechanical mouse is. The listener, possibly.

  12. Ned Corman says

    Well. There was Paul Desmond. And then there wasn’t. Few, and, perhaps, none, made music more beautiful and beautifully.

    Since learning, only a few months ago, about a “new to me” libation, Martinez, however, my respect for PD may have slid just a tad. And, my libation modified just a truffle – oops trifle..

    I wonder what PD may have thought. A dry Martinez, I suppose, to PD would have been an oxymoron. Tomorrow, nevertheless, won’t be too soon for a dry martini – or two. Thank you, PD.