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.
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 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.”