Paul Desmond

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Paul Desmond (November 25, 1924 – May 30, 1977), born Paul Emil Breitenfeld, was a jazz alto saxophonist and composer born in San Francisco, best known for the work he did in the Dave Brubeck Quartet and for penning that group's greatest hit, "Take Five". He was not only one of the most popular musicians to come out of the West Coast's "cool jazz" scene, but also the possessor of a legendary and idiosyncratic wit.

In addition to his work with Brubeck he led several of his own groups and did significant collaborations with artists such as Gerry Mulligan, Jim Hall and Chet Baker. After years of chain smoking and general poor health, Desmond succumbed to lung cancer in 1977 following one last tour with Brubeck.


Early life

Paul Desmond was born Paul Emil Breitenfeld in San Francisco, California in 1924. His father was an organist who played in movie theaters during silent films, and his mother was emotionally unstable during his upbringing. During childhood he spent years living with relatives in New York City due to problems at home. Desmond began playing violin at a young age, though his father forbade him to play it.[1]

He played clarinet at the age of twelve at San Francisco Polytechnic High. It was not until he became a freshman at San Francisco State College that he picked up the alto saxophone. In his freshman year he was drafted into the United States Army and joined the Army band while stationed in San Francisco. He spent three years in the military, but his unit was never called to combat.[1]


Following the conclusion of World War II, Desmond started working in Palo Alto, California at the Bandbox. He also worked some with Brubeck at the Geary Cellar in San Francisco. Desmond soon hired Brubeck, but cut his pay in half and then replaced him altogether after taking him along to Graeagle at The Feather River Inn for gigs; this was done so Desmond could gamble in nearby Reno. In 1950 Desmond left for New York City playing alto and clarinet for Jack Fina, but returned to California after hearing Brubeck's trio on the radio.[1]

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