Today is Paul Desmond’s 90th birthday. Years after Paul’s death, his guitar companion and good friend Jim Hall (1930-2013) said, “He would have been a great old man.” The last birthday Desmond celebrated, his fifty-second, fell on Thanksgiving, 1976. He spent it with Jim and his wife Jane at their daughter’s tiny apartment in New York City. He had taken a hiatus from his lung cancer therapy to play the Monterey Jazz Festival and an engagement at Barnaby Conrad’s El Matador in San Francisco. From Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond, this is an account of that Thanksgiving day. The photographs are courtesy of his hostess, Devra Hall, who had known Paul since she was a little girl.
Back in New York, Desmond resumed his chemotherapy treatments and spent time with friends. Jim and Jane Hall’s daughter, Devra, had been graduated from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusets and was living on 89th Street between West End and Riverside Drive. Her mother announced to her that now that she had her own place, Devra would be hosting Thanksgiving dinner. Thanksgiving and Desmond’s 52nd birthday came on the same day, November 25, 1976.
“I told her, ‘Okay, but you have to bring Paul,'” Devra said. “I knew what Mom would do, so I went to the market on Broadway and got this turkey and, mind you, my kitchen was the size of a small bathroom. To open the oven, you had to stand outside the kitchen door. This is New York, my first apartment and my first turkey, I’m growing up and very pleased with myself. I followed all the instructions, turned on the oven and put it in. We all knew Paul was sick. I think he had just finished a chemo treatment, but he said he felt up to it, and he and my folks came to this tiny one-room apartment. There was no bed, just a pullout couch; it was all folded up. Paul was sitting in the little brown canvas sling chair. There was an upright piano that my dad had bought me for my birthday, a chest of drawers and a drop leaf table at which we had dinner. That was it for furniture. Well, they’re sitting there. My mother says, ‘So, how’s the bird? I say, ‘Well, go check it out.’ She opens the oven–I couldn’t go in there with her; there was no room–and she closes the door and she’s laughing. You know, I’m mortified. I can’t imagine what’s wrong.
“Paul’s saying, ‘What’s wrong, didn’t she turn on the oven?’ Jim can’t decide whether I’m going to cry or what. It turns out that I had put the turkey in the oven upside down. Don’t the legs go on the bottom? I mean, isn’t that how the bird stands? We later determined that I was ahead of my time. Today, that’s the chef’s secret to keeping the meat moist. It turned out fine. It was a very quiet dinner. Paul was not feeling well, but he was clearly happy not to be home alone. He didn’t have to say a word around my folks. They talked a blue streak, usually, but he was just very comfortable. My fondest recollection is that I made him dinner on his last birthday.”
The senior Halls and Desmond went back to Jim and Jane’s apartment when they left Devra’s, and on the way stopped at the Village Vanguard. Thelonious Monk was performing there. Between sets, they all gathered in the Vanguard’s kitchen, the closest thing the club has to a Green Room.
“It was the most coherent conversation I ever had with Thelonious,” Hall said, “in the kitchen with Paul and me and Thelonious. I had a sort of nodding acquaintance with Monk, but he and Paul really connected. I’m not even sure what they talked about, just standing around in that kitchen, going through old memories and things. It was nice.”
During the life of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Desmond rarely recorded apart from Brubeck. Albums under his leadership on Fantasy, Warner Bros and RCA were exceptions. After Brubeck disbanded, Desmond recorded occasionally with other pianists. One of the most memorable such encounters accomplished something he had talked about, even joked about, for years; a recording with the Modern Jazz Quartet in concert.
Anticipating this 90th Desmond birthday, Rifftides reader Frank Roellinger sent a communiqué suggesting that in Paul’s solo on “You Go to My Head” with the MJQ he may have inserted a tribute to his friend and Town Hall band mate John Lewis, the quartet’s pianist.
From about 03:58 to the end of his solo, it sounds as though Paul is paying homage to Lewis by playing in a style very similar to John’s especially near the end at 04:36 where he plays that minor second interval in a rhythm exactly the way John would have done it. That’s what first tipped me off. It might be interesting so see whether any of your readers agree with this.
The track is from Paul Desmond & The Modern Jazz Quartet, recorded at Town Hall in New York City on Christmas night, 1971.
As for what it was like to know Desmond, I cannot improve on what the playwright Jack Richardson said at Paul’s memorial service on June 20, 1977:
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’d ever known in my life. His leaving will make this planet a smaller and darker place for everyone.
For The Sound Of A Dry Martini, Paul Conley’s classic National Public Radio profile of Desmond, go here and click on “Hear the Documentary.”