New Bio Chronicles Pre-Fame Northern California Years of Jazzman Desmond

Share |
Thursday, July 21, 2005

When jazz critic Doug Ramsey decided to write “Take 5, the Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond” he was well aware it would be a challenge. 

"People knew very little about Paul’s personal and private life because he didn’t talk about it.  Even Dave Brubeck who was probably Paul’s closest friend didn’t know very much about Paul’s early life or about his parents."

Neither did Ramsey, who was also a close friend.  But, he learned a lot more about Desmond when he uncovered a cache of correspondence between the saxophonist and his father.  These letters, which Ramsey includes in his book, reveal Desmond’s musical philosophy, career frustrations,  and determination to find his own musical identity. They also express his joy in performing with Brubeck.

"The musical connection was something extremely rare.  They hit that, what Dave and Paul had both refered to as ESP, very early on in their musical life. "

That musical ESP helped propel the Dave Brubeck Quartet to international fame.  But, before the quartet was formed, the friendship nearly ended.  In 1949, Desmond and Brubeck had a steady gig a club near Palo Alto called The Band Box.  Both men later said it was a wild time with musical highlights every night.  But then Desmond did something that, to this day, is hard to understand.

"Paul got an offer to play up at Feather River, the Feather River Inn up in the Sierra and took it and left.  And so Brubeck said well gee I’ll just take over this gig and Paul said oh no you won’t I’m gonna come back to it some time."

Brubeck left a job that paid a hundred dollars a week to join Desmond at the Band Box for 42 dollars a week.  Now, unemployed with a wife and two small children to support, he was understandably upset.

"Dave said to his wife, 'I never want to see Paul Desmond again.  If he comes to the house, don’t let him in.'  And he assumed that Desmond had solicited the Feather River job.  As it turns out Dick Johnson, who was the bandleader at Feather River, offered Paul the job and Paul accepted.

"One day in 1949 I almost changed history and didn’t even know it."

Sacramento trumpeter Dick Johnson – still active today as a bandleader – had no idea he was breaking up a partnership fifty-six years ago.  He was just trying to put together a band.

"I needed an alto saxophone player or a tenor player, it didn’t matter to me one way or the other, and somebody recommended Paul Desmond. And I came up with the brilliant answer to that, ‘Paul Who?’ ‘Paul Breitenfeld’  I said oh, o.k. I knew about his father anyway, I didn’t know him.  So I hired him.

Johnson’s band played popular music of the day for dinner and dancing, songs that usual lasted about 3-minutes, except of course when Desmond was really feeling inspired during a solo.

"He would go and go and go.  And there was no way to stop him, you just walked off to the side of the stage and crossed your arms and waited until he finished. It was not a problem.  Otherwise we would’ve been fired, I would have had to do something about it (laughs)."

At Feather River, Dick Johnson got to know Paul Desmond, as a musician, as a  man, and as an artist often plagued by self-doubt.

"He was just a real nice guy,  just headed for fame and didn’t know it.  He was convinced he would never make it.  The style that Desmond wanted to play and that Brubeck wanted to play, the public had not accepted it at that point.  And he probably thought that nobody ever would because he didn’t know that he was going to create a new path, which is really what Desmond and Brubeck did together.

So how did Desmond and Brubeck get back together after the now-famous Feather River falling out?  Author Doug Ramsey says we can thank Mrs. Dave Brubeck for that.

"Paul came to the house, charmed Iola, she let him in (laughs).  They made up and then after that the partnership was pretty even.

Doug Ramsey, author of “Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond,” along with local bandleader Dick Johnson.