Had Paul Desmond lived, today he would be celebrating—or, more likely, wryly acknowledging—his 93rd birthday. He was born in San Francisco on November 25, 1924. Several Rifftides readers have sent communiqués reminding me of the occasion. I might not have forgotten, but thank you for the alerts.
John Bolger, proprietor of the dave brubeck jazz website, sent a couple of photographs. In the shot on the left, he found Paul at work, presumably with the Brubeck Quartet, Desmond’s source of steady employment for seventeen years. On the right, we see Desmond captured by an uncredited photographer. It shows what Mr. Bolger describes as, “typical Paul—cigarette and cheeky grin.” The charm suggested by that shot captivated virtually everyone who knew him. It was also a major component of his playing, recognizable at once to Desmond listeners around the world. When he died in New York on May 30, 1977, he was 52 years old.
I interviewed the playwright Jack Richardson for my biography of Paul. He recalled what he said at the memorial service for the pal with whom he frequently dined, drank and entertained friends at Elaine’s restaurant on New York’s East Side.
I more or less said that I found him the best company of anyone I’d 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. I said that his leaving will make this planet a smaller and darker place for everyone.
In The Village Voice, Nat Hentoff recalled another moment at the service.
The piano had been tuned, but nobody had played. Then, from the back of the room, a wiry, graying man, wearing a golf hat and a quizzical look not unlike Paul’s, moved almost at a run to the piano and said, ‘This is a song Paul always asked for.’
Jimmy Rowles played ‘Darn That Dream,’ fitting it to Paul’s tone and floating beat. He got up, did a small jig, and uttered a cry. Not in mourning. What Thomas Wolfe called a goat cry—to life. To Paul’s music.
So much for no immediate survivors.
“Darn That Dream” was the favorite song of Paul and his girlfriend, Jenna Whidden.
We heard Paul Desmond with his last band: Ed Bickert, guitar; Don Thompson, bass; Jerry Fuller, drums. Recorded at Bourbon Street, Toronto, 1975. He fondly called them his Canadian Quartet.