Paul Desmond died at the age of 52 on this date in 1977. It was Memorial Day. It had been his custom to join Dave Brubeck and his family to observe the holiday at their Connecticut home, which Paul had christened The Wilton Hilton. This time, his lung cancer made him too weak to consider the trip. From my Desmond biography, here is a summary of events leading up to his final day, beginning with an account of one of our frequent telephone conversations.
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, May 27, and he would call me from Elaine’s.
Jenna (Whidden) 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.
On this 36th anniversary of Paul’s passing, those with internet access can listen to the complete version of a monumental Desmond solo. For decades, only listeners who owned the 1953 10-inch vinyl Fantasy LP of the Brubeck Quartet’s Jazz At Oberlin have been able to hear Desmond soaring unedited through chorus after breathtaking chorus of “The Way You Look Tonight.” It is a matter of conjecture why Fantasy cut a minute of the solo when they expanded the album to a 12-inch LP. All subsequent CD reissues perpetuated the cut. In any case, over the years most people have missed the portion of the solo that runs from 1:12 to 2:11 in the video below. Recently, a YouTube contributor known as Kocn53 liberated the complete solo from his copy of the 10-inch LP. He illustrated it with the cover of the 12-inch album. On the left we’re showing you the cover of the original LP, which had only four tracks. Fantasy added “How High the Moon” to the expanded release. How about a public service award for Kocn35, whoever he or she may be.
Paul Desmond, 1924-1977