Since Rifftides began, every year on May 30 I have posted something about Paul Desmond. He died thirty-eight years ago today. For reasons that I cannot clearly identify, this year I struggled with the idea. Until the last moment I put off the remembrance and finally concluded that the best option was to have Paul speak for himself with his playing.
At the 1954 recording session for the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s album Brubeck Time, LIFE magazine photographer Gjon Mili shot the film you will see. Mili had egged Brubeck into an pugnacious frame of mind by saying that he did not consider that what the quartet played was jazz. That got the result he was hoping for, a surge through the harmonies of “Oh, Lady Be Good” that ended up titled “Stompin’ For Mili.” It’s the piece you hear and see last in the film clip. Brubeck later recalled that producer George Avakian then asked for a quiet minor blues. The preamble here is from my 2005 book The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond.
“I would like,” said Gjon, closing his eyes and raising his hand expressively, “I would like to see Audrey Hepburn come walking through the woods—“
Gee,” said Paul wistfully, “So would I.”
“One,” I said, noticing the glazed expression about Paul’s eyes, “two, three, four. And we played it.”
Mili may not have known of Desmond’s infatuation with Audrey Hepburn, but he could have said nothing more likely to inspire the playing that followed. Paul never met Audrey Hepburn, though he came close many times that summer of 1954. In the Jean Giraudeaux play Ondine, she was an underwater nymph who fell in love with a knight. She won a Tony award for her work in the title role. Ondine played at the 46th Street Theatre, not far from Basin Street.
“Paul would look at his watch the whole time we were playing at Basin Street,” Brubeck told me. “He knew when she would walk out the stage door and get in her limousine, and he wanted to be standing there. So, when I’d see him watching the time, I knew I’d better take a quick intermission or I was going to have problems with Paul. He’d put his horn down, and out the door he’d go, and he’d run down just to stand and watch her leave.”
“Paul told me that,” I said to Brubeck, “and I asked him, ‘What did you say to her?’ And he looked surprised and said, ‘Nothing. Are you kidding?’
Here is “Audrey,” note for note as it appeared on the album
This addendum to the “Audrey” story is also from the Desmond biography.
Brubeck Time became a big seller and “Audrey” one of Desmond’s most beloved works. The recording associated his name with Hepburn’s, but he died twenty-three years later never having imagined that she knew who he was or that she had heard the piece. After Hepburn died in 1993, the United Nations honored her for her international work with children. Her husband, Andrea Dotti, asked Brubeck and his Quartet to play “Audrey” at the memorial service at UN headquarters in New York.
“I told him,” Brubeck said, “that I had no idea he’d be aware of ‘Audrey.’ He said, ‘My wife listened to it every night before she went to bed, and if she was walking through the garden, she’d listen to it on earphones.’”
“Paul never knew,” Iola Brubeck said. “And he was so in love with Audrey.”
A year or so earlier, Hepburn herself acknowledged what “Audrey” meant to her. The publicist and author Peter Levinson sent the actress a copy of Brubeck Time when the album was first reissued as a compact disc. She responded with a hand-written note.
19 March ’92
Thank you for such a lovely gift—I am thrilled to have the Brubeck C.D. with ‘My Song,’ the ultimate compliment. You letter is so lovely, and I am most grateful for all your kindness.
At the United Nations ceremony, Brubeck’s new alto saxophonist, Bobby Militello, played Desmond’s solo note for note, inflection for inflection. He had memorized it when he was a boy.