© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
After featuring earlier pieces on the late Paul Desmond [1924-1977] on these pages that focused mainly on the writings of the eminent Jazz author, Doug Ramsey, a long-time friend of Paul’s, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought that Paul’s memory had been well-served.
That is until we found the following essay simply entitled “Paul” in the September, 1983 edition of Gene Lees’ JazzLetter.
Desmond-by-Lees is just too good to pass up, especially since Gene’s narrative emphasizes developments in Paul’s career after the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet disbanded in 1967 up to his death in 1977, a period when, for the most part, Paul did his best to retreat from the public eye.
“Two platters of melon and cold cuts rested, along with a large deep bowl filled with ice and small bottles of wine, on a coffee table in a dressing room backstage at the Hollywood Bowl. On the open door were two names, Gerry Mulligan and Dave Brubeck. Gerry had just finished performing. Distantly, from the stage, we could hear Stan Getz. A girl appeared in the door and told Gerry that Dave was outside and wanted to say hello but didn't want to enter a roomful of cigarette smoke. There was in fact little smoke in the room. It seemed that almost all Gerry's guests had quit smoking, and Gerry, who has in recent years shown serious symptoms of moderation, smokes only occasionally.
I went outdoors with him. It was a warm smoggy night. Dave was wearing a white tuxedo jacket and ruffled shirt open at the throat. Gerry wore slim-legged black slacks and a white pullover shirt with loose sleeves that vaguely evoked the Middle Ages. I sometimes think Mulligan wishes he Had lived then.
It was inevitable that we would talk about Paul. Desperate Desmond, as Gerry now and then had called him. "And what was that name he had for you?" Dave said. "G. Emily Guncloset," Gerry answered, and explained that this what Paul had insisted the French emcee is saying on that Paris album wherein he announces. "Et maintenant — Zhe-hree Moo-leh-gahn!"
The last time I had seen Dave was at his home in Wilton, Connecticut — not all that far from Mulligan's present residence in Darien — and that had been at least fifteen years before.
Dave was slim and youthful at sixty-four. Paul had insisted, when they were young, that Dave must be part Indian. Dave doesn't seem to be all that sure about it himself; where his father grew up, a mixed white and Indian blood was fairly common, as it is in much of the American west. Anyway, whatever his roots, Dave does indeed look more and more like some distinguished Cherokee chieftain as he grows older.
Dave grinned --he has a wonderful embracing smile that makes his eyes crinkle — and he pointed at me and said, "I was thinking about you just the other day. I was remembering when you and Paul almost got us all shot in Indiana!"
"Oh God, yes," I said, laughing. "I've thought about it often. I think of you and me and Paul, lost at that crossroads amid all that corn in the middle of the night. We couldn't see over the cornfields to get our bearings."
"Would you say," Mulligan offered, "that this makes those people insular?"
And we told a few Desmond stories.
Paul was chronically tardy. In the early days, he would arrive in his car at the last minute to pick Dave up for their gig at the Band Box in San Francisco. The traffic lights near Stanford were set for forty-five miles per hour. Paul reasoned that they should also work at double that speed, and so he would go tearing to the job at ninety. "And on top of that," Dave said, "he'd be reading all the signs along the road backwards. And I just wanted him to watch the road."
Paul's early life is almost a blank. He never spoke of it to me, and perhaps to no one but Dave. Dave says Paul adored his father but not his mother. "If you knew the story," he said, "you could forgive him anything."
"I have nothing to forgive him for, Dave," I said.
Dave did. Paul's tardiness in the early days bordered on the truly irresponsible. Dave at one point told his wife, lola, "I never want to see Paul Desmond again," and went a year without speaking to him.
Paul had an ability to maintain direct friendships with the wives of friends. Indeed he carried on suspended loves with some of them, curiously pure and innocent. One of them was my wife, to whom he said wistfully, "It seems to be my destiny to be in love with the wife of one of my best friends." Another was lola, to whom he was very close. He was not of course the first man to resolve a fear of marriage by investing his deeper feelings in women who were safely out of reach.
After the months of estrangement, Paul turned up at Dave's house, doubtless looking woebegone. lola went to the back porch, where Dave was hanging up diapers, and told him he would simply have to see Paul.
After that reconciliation, they never looked back. Interestingly, though Dave repeatedly signed contracts with Paul, Paul never signed and never returned them — another symptom of his fear of commitment. Yet he never questioned the bookings and deals Dave signed on their behalf. And he became Uncle Paul to all Dave's children.
Stan Getz ended his segment of the concert. It was time for Dave's group to go on.
"I still miss him, Dave," I said.
And for a moment Dave looked bereft, truly lost. He said, "Oh boy, so do I."
Paul and Mulligan and I used to hang out together in New York in the 1960s. Gerry was deeply involved with Judy Holliday then. Every man who knew her was in some way in love with her, probably including me and Desmond. And certainly Alec Wilder. Paul had a taste for complex puns, and so did Judy, who said of the ferns in the window of her vast and ancient apartment in the Dakotas, the building that became famous when John Lennon was shot in front of it, "With fronds like these, who needs anemones?" Mulligan is by no means slow with a mot himself. Gary McFarland said, after an evening with the three of them, "I felt like I was caught in the middle of an acrostic."
Desmond was the co-inventor of the most complicated pun I ever heard; I cannot recall who was his collaborator in this silliness. Dave says the joke dates back at least to 1954. It concerns a boy of Italian parentage named Carbaggio, born in Germany. Feeling himself a misfit, with his dark curly hair, among all those Teutonic blonds, he tries to be even more German than the Germans. In late adolescence he flees to Paris, where he steals one of those brass miniatures of the Eiffel Tower. Arrested by the police, he is given a choice of going to jail or leaving the country. He boards the first outbound ship and arrives in New York. Thinking he would like a career in communications, he goes to the RCA building in Rockefeller Plaza, takes an elevator, and walks into the office of General Sarnoff. Sarnoff tells him the only possible job is as a strikebreaker. The boy takes it. When the strike ends, he finds himself on a union blacklist. He goes to work making sonar equipment for a company owned by a man named Harris. After several years, his English is improved to the point where he gets a job on a radio station as a disc jockey. His show is called Rock Time. And he has fulfilled his destiny: he's a routine Teuton Eiffel-lootin' Sarnoff goon from Harris Sonar, Rock-Time Carbaggio.
I used to wonder what kind of mind would expend the effort of working out something like that.
Paul's kind. He numbered many writers among his friends, as Judy Holliday did, and he was an habitue of Elaine's, a bar on the upper East Side of New York City frequented by novelists and other scriveners, whereas Mulligan and I, during the waning afternoons of those years, could usually be found in Jim and Andy's.
Paul also had a taste for high-fashion models of which, in his travels, he had accumulated a considerable collection. Only recently a Toronto newspaper reporter friend of mine mentioned a famous Canadian model who had lived in his apartment building. Soliciting a Bloody Mary from him one hungover Sunday morning, she said, "I haven't been this tired since the last time Paul Desmond was in town."
Pianist Marian McPartland once wrote an article about Paul for me at Down Beat. It must have been about that time that I first met him. She asked Paul about his penchant for models. "Well," he said to her, "they'll go out for a while with a cat who's scuffling but they always seem to end up marrying some manufacturer from the Bronx. This is the way the world ends, not with a whim but a banker."
Paul was Dave's diametrical opposite. Once, in South America, a jazz fan possessed by that almost religious fervor for the music that you encounter in other countries asked me whether it was true that Paul and Dave had a homosexual relationship. I didn't even laugh. I was boggled by the question. Aside from the extraordinary rarity of homosexuality in jazz — the incidence is far below not only the other arts but the population norm, a statistical anomaly that is deeply puzzling — one could not easily imagine two men less likely to be so involved. Paul was a womanizer who doted on beautiful girls and Dave is famous for an unshaken lifetime devotion to his wife.
"I spent twenty years trying to get Dave Brubeck laid," Paul said with that idiosyncratic wicked laugh of his.
"He was always trying to get me drunk or get me to do something," Dave says with a smile.
"Sometimes," Paul said on another occasion, "I get the feeling that there are orgies going on all over New York City, and somebody says 'Let's call Desmond,' and somebody else says, 'Why bother? He's probably home reading the Encyclopedia Britannica.'"
"Yeah, but Paul," I said, "you probably are."
Home in those last years was a penthouse apartment at 56th Street and Sixth Avenue. Like Mitch Miller, Paul had a listed telephone number. Nobody ever thought to look it up and fans rarely if ever called.
The living room of that apartment was a chaos, rivalled only by that of Glenn Gould in Toronto, of books, newpapers, records, tapes, tape recorders, crushed Pall Mall packs, and a black Steinway grand with a high gloss on which Paul played me tunes he wanted me to write lyrics for and for which, alas, I never did. In his will Paul left that piano to Bradley's as a wry act of kindness to musicians who suffer long with bad nightclub pianos. Paul and I went once to Bradley's to hear Jimmy Rowles. And now Jimmy plays Paul's piano there.
On that piano was the photo of a girl, taken long before, the wife of his best friend in the early years. Paul and she had fallen in love, which destroyed her marriage and of course the friendship. I suspect that Paul always carried a certain amount of guilt over it. It was that man, famous now himself, who broke the news to me at some social gathering in Los Angeles that Paul had lung cancer. And I could hear in his voice the trace of an old affection for Paul.
Paul was in fact an easy man to love. Everyone knew that but Paul. I once said that about him in print and, later he confessed that he had choked up on reading it.
Paul was quite capable, in his last years, of doing two quarts of whiskey a day, although I did not then and do not now consider him an addicted alcoholic. He obtained a syringe from his doctor and used to give himself vitamin shots in the thigh in the mornings, to diminish the hangovers. I used to imagine him, whiskey glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other, falling asleep on the sofa in front of a television set hissing with snow after the National Anthem, and maybe burning a hole in his trousers. He reminded me of Mitya, the Karamazov brother who wants to leap heels up into the muck to make himself as bad as he thinks he is and escape the burden of virtue in an ongoing corruption. In the end, Paul failed, because he was a very gentle man, and a very, very good one, haunted by his own romanticism, which he mocked in words and a wry choice of notes, and never finding that perfect love-for-a-lifetime he always, really, wanted. He was the loneliest man I ever knew.
Paul and Dave were native Californians. David Warren Brubeck was born in Concord on December 6,1920. Paul Emil Breitenfeld (he said he got Desmond out of a telephone book) was born November 25,1924, in San Francisco. His mother was Irish, his father German. Paul thought his father was Jewish until, near the end of his life, a relative told him he wasn't. His father was a theater organist who became friends with a young cellist, also of German ancestry and native of San Francisco, named Hugo Friedhofer. Hugo and Paul never met. Hugo loved Paul's playing, which reflected that of Benny Carter and, among others, Pete Brown. I hear an echo of Johnny Hodges' upper register in Paul's playing. Bobby Scott detects a good deal of Lester Young. In any case Paul was a unique player. You could hear him for one bar and know it was he.
His playing was lyrical, romantic, soaring, and, in the very best sense of the word, pretty. If the saxophonists inspired by Lester Young played tenor as if it were alto, Paul played alto as if it were clarinet. Paul had at one time been able to play an octave even higher on the horn, but then an admirer asked him how he did it and Paul tried to show him and lost that other octave forever. Dave confirms the story. Ralph J. Gleason told me years ago that Paul disliked fast tempos (he also disliked fancy changes and busy drummers) and that Dave, knowing this, and also knowing that Paul played his best when angry, would kick very fast tempos on purpose. Dave confirmed that story, too. Left to his own devices, Paul would have played ballads and medium-up tunes all evening. Notice on the albums he did without Dave how few (if any) really fast tunes there are. When I asked him how he had developed his sound, Paul said, "Welll - " in the way he had of drawing that word out " — I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to sound like a dry martini." I quoted that in print, and it went around the world, quoted again so often that Paul said he wished he'd never said it. But in fact his sound did resemble the flavor of a dry martini, it had a sort of oval-shaped bitterness.
On another occasion, I said to him, "Paul, what accounts for the melancholy in your playing?" And he said, "Wellllll, the fact that I'm not playing better." It happens that I asked the question while doing a formal interview with him, of which I have a tape. You can hear us both cracking up at that retort, but Paul's laughter crumbles into a dry raspy cough, the gift of his tobacco company and the presage of his carcinoma.
It was this sardonic quality that made Paul's romanticism work. It is impossible to write tragedy without a sense of humor. Humor lights up dark literature, like Rembrandt's underpainting. Without it the work is merely heavy, turgid. Make 'em laugh before you make 'em cry. Shakespeare does this deftly — the gatekeeper's scene in Macbeth, the gravedigger's scene in Hamlet. How smoothly Stravinsky does it in the Firebird Suite. Sibelius lifts your spirits before laying that tragic trombone melody on you in the Seventh Symphony. It is irony, mockery even, that makes Lorenz Hart the greater lyricist than Oscar Hammerstein. My Funny Valentine -- Hammerstein could never have conceived such a thought. Without an inner humor, tragic art becomes like the pathetic you-gotta-hear-my-story lapel-grabbing of a barroom drunk. Here is one of the distinguishing differences between Tchaikovsky and Mozart. Mozart's restraint in sorrow makes his music only the more poignant. And Paul had that kind of elegance.
It was the fashion of some critics, who paid attention not to what he was doing but to what he had no intention of doing, to patronize his playing as "weak". There was of course nothing "weak" about it. Like someone sufficiently secure in his manhood that he is unhesitatingly gentle (a quality you encounter in some athletes), Paul never, as it were, had to raise his voice. He was too busy being funny, and in being funny was often heartbreaking.
Quotes in jazz are dangerous, and they can be corny, but Paul's were sly, humorous, and ingenious. When the quartet would play Montreal, Dave says, Paul would quote I'm a Dreamer, Aren't We All? It was a play on words and music, in keeping with the principle of Cockney rhyming slang, which Dave knew to mean: I'm a Dreamer, Montreal. His mind worked the same way in words. Annoyed by an aggressive woman reporter who kept asking him banal questions, he said, "You're beginning to sound like a cross between David Frost and David Susskind, and that is a cross I cannot bear."
Both he and Dave would play telephone numbers in their solos. (The notes of a scale are numbered; any sequence of numbers can therefore be rendered as a melodic phrase.) When one of his girlfriends would arrive at a club, Paul would play her phone number into a solo. Dave came to recognize some of these numbers and if two or more of Paul's ladies turned up at the same time and Dave was the first to see them, he would alert Paul by playing their numbers on the piano.
Dave and Paul achieved a close rapport in those years. Paul told me once, "When you do something good simultaneously, that's very interesting, but when you make the same mistake at the same time, that gets scary." Dave Brubeck's career has been a mixture of acclaim and, derogation. But one person you did not run Dave Brubeck down to was Paul Desmond. And he thought Dave comped for a horn player better than just about anybody.
He also loved the Modern Jazz Quartet. Connie Kay was probably his favorite drummer. On Christmas day, 1971, Paul joined the MJQ for their annual Town Hall concert in New York. The performance was recorded, though poorly. John Lewis worked closely with engineer Don Puluse to achieve a miracle of enhancement and issued the album on the Finesse label. "For Paul's friends," John said. "I think they'll like it." He was quite right: it is one of Paul's best albums. One hears immediately why Paul felt such an affinity for the MJQ. (It extended even to the conservative style of their dress.)
Paul recorded five albums for RCA Victor, a number for CTI, one in Toronto for Horizon; and the last thing he ever did was with Chet Baker. But of course the bulk of his recorded work was with the Brubeck group.
Once I ran into Paul on 56th Street, not long before the quartet disbanded. "Are you guys working?" I said.
"Are we working?" he said. "We're working as if it were going out of style — which of course it is. "That's a typical Desmondism. You hear similar unexpected addenda to his musical phrases.
"The official disbandment of the quartet was at the end of 1967," Paul said. "It really should have been in Paris. It was the end of the European tour, it was the end of twenty years of playing together, seventeen of which we got paid for. The Paris concert was recorded. It was a logical time to end the whole thing, but we had two or three anti-climactic concerts left in the schedule."
Was it true that Paul actually founded what became the Dave Brubeck Quartet?
"Well," Paul said, "to the extent that it was a trio with a girl singer, and Dave and
I did vocals, if you'd like to believe that."
"No kidding," I said. "I do find it hard to believe."
"I find it hard to believe myself."
"You I can sort of handle, but not Dave."
"How it all began was that Dave was working in a place called Geary Cellar in San Francisco with Norman Bates and a singer named Francis Lynn and a tenor player. And I used to go by and bribe the tenor player variously, so I could sit in with Dave. And, in one of the most courageous acts I ever performed, I stole his entire band and took them away, down to a place outside Stanford. I expected to be wrapped in cement and sunk in San Francisco Bay for several months thereafter."
Paul lacked the attributes of a bandleader. "When it comes to money," he said once, "I shouldn't be allowed loose in the street." Dave, on the other hand, is an organized individual, and gradually he became the leader. Though they were attracting a following, no record company was interested and finally Dave recorded them with his own money, little though he had of it. The first albums were on Fantasy, but before long the group moved to Columbia Records and become the most popular jazz group in the world.
Paul was married briefly and once. Even Dave knows very little about the marriage, which occurred during or shortly after Paul's last year at San Francisco State University, where he was preparing himself to be a writer. The only reason I know about the marriage is that I met the girl, not long after their divorce and before I knew Paul. Paul never mentioned her to me, and I mentioned her only once, when we had both had a few too many drinks. Paul got tears in his eyes and I never spoke of her again.
Paul in fact never talked about the women in his life. Contrary to what most women seem to think, few men boast of their conquests, and those who do are usually held in contempt by other men. It is considered unmanly. But Paul was unusually reticent on the subject. I met a few of his ladies, however, and they were all great beauties.
Dave did something intelligent and generous: he made Paul in effect a partner in the group, receiving not only a salary but a percentage. They made a lot of money in those years, some of which Paul and Dave jointly invested. "Dave managed," Paul cracked once, "to find one of the few pieces on land on the California coast with no water on it."
But they lived very separate lives, which was inevitable, in view of their personalities, philosophies, and ways of living. Nonetheless, when Dave became gravely ill with mumps orchitis, it was Paul whom lola called to help her take him to the hospital. Paul hated the uncivilized outdoors and all his life had a nightclub pallor to go with his lean and slightly stooped frame. With Paul and lola holding his arms, Dave entered the hospital lobby. The staff was expecting them, and a nurse took one look at Paul and said, "Oh Mr. Brubeck, let me get you a wheelchair."
Paul was perfectly happy to let Dave have the publicity and, when the hour came, simply walk onstage, play, and at concert's end leave with some girl.
One afternoon during that Indiana weekend when Paul and I almost got us all shot, he and I were invited to a party being held in some park by members of the Junior Chamber of Commerce. This was not exactly Paul's natural habitat. In the car, the thirtyish couple who had invited us took up the praises of some local singer, suggesting that Paul and I might be able to advance her career for which she would no doubt express her gratitude in an interesting (though not particularly original) way. The wife in the team made much of her friend's prodigious physical endowments. Somewhat amazed that I was actually hearing this, I said, "Does she have a husband?"
"Oh yes," our hostess said brightly, as if nothing could be more irrelevant.
"What does he do?" I said.
"Bites his nails," Paul muttered darkly.
At the party, held in that great outdoors for which Paul had no taste, only beer was being served. And Paul had no taste for that either. "Split city," he said, and we did. It was that night that we almost got blown away.
My wife and I spent the first half of the 1970s in Toronto. Another thing Paul had in common with Glenn Gould was an addiction to the telephone. He would call, often very late, and begin the conversation with a cheery, "Hello there, this is your friend Paul Breitenfeld." If he didn't reach me, he would talk to my wife by the hour. He had in fact known her before I did, back in a time when he was dating a friend of hers in Detroit, inevitably a model. Paul was one of those men who genuinely like women, which no doubt was one reason he was so attractive to them.
One day I got a call from Paul Grosney, a well-known Toronto trumpet player who books the performers for several jazz clubs, including Bourbon Street. Desmond had appeared in public very little in the last few years, and never in his life as a leader, except for that brief early experience in San Francisco. Grosney asked if I thought Paul would play Bourbon Street. I said that I doubted it, but it wouldn't hurt to ask him.
"Would you let me have his phone number?" Grosney said.
"Sure, but it's in the New York phone book."
Not long after that I got a call from Desmond, reporting on his conversation with Groz. "Do you think I should do it?" he said.
"Sure. You've done enough of being Achilles in the tent. It's a nice room, so come on up and hang out."
"I don't know," Paul said. "I'd have to practice..."
"So practice," I said.
"What about a rhythm section?"
"Ask for Don Thompson on bass, Terry Clark or Jerry Fuller on drums, and Ed Bickert on guitar."
"I've heard about Ed Bickert," Paul said. "Jim Hall told me about him. Jim says he's one of the few guitar players who scare him when he sees him come into a room."
Paul accepted the engagement. He called several more times. He said he was practicing and he didn't intend to do any drinking until the gig was over. (He may have been referring to that period when he told Doug Ramsey, "I tried practicing for a few weeks and ended up playing too fast." He used to call himself "the world's slowest alto player.")
He arrived in Toronto, held a rehearsal with the rhythm section, felt better about things, and came up to our apartment. He was surprisingly nervous about the gig but firm in his decision not to drink. I tried to keep him talking. "Have you started work on the book?" He was supposed to be writing a book on the years of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the title for which was alone worth the price of admission.
"Only to the extent that I sold that one chapter to Punch and on the basis of that sold the book, so they gave me money, and now I have to do something about it."
"What's the exact story of that title?"
"At least once, and usually more often, a month, we'd get on a plane and... First would come Gene Wright with his bass. Then came Joe Morello — Dr. Cyclops, although he was always good-natured about his thick glasses. This procession would alert the flight attendants and passengers that something was happening.
"First the salesman in the second row behind Gene with the bass would say, 'Hey, are you going to tuck it under your chin and play some music for us?' That was inevitable. Then the stewardess would say, 'What band are you with?' And we'd say, 'Well, actually, it's the Dave Brubeck Quartet.' In the earlier days they would then say. 'Who?' And later on, they would say, 'Oh?' meaning much the same thing. Then, when the flight got comfortably under way, and they had some leisure, the stewardess would come back and sit down and say, 'How many of you are there in the quartet?'"
That of course was to be the title of Paul's book.
"How is it," I said, "that you never got into the Charlie Parker trap? You managed to go pretty much your own way."
"Well, that! I specifically tried to avoid it. I was starting out, and every saxophone player and alto players especially, and every musician, for that matter, was suddenly turned around and stunned by Charlie Parker. And many of them tried to adapt what he was doing, which meant they could only become copies, with varying degrees of effectiveness. And no matter how good the very best of them were, they were obvious, except for some who played different instruments. That's one cardinal rule for young musicians, in case you want any cardinal rules for young musicians. If you're going to imitate somebody, just imitate someone who plays a different horn, and you've got it made.
"I practically put ear muffs and blinders on to avoid falling into that quicksand, because I knew it would be the finish for me. Only after I felt reasonably secure, which was several years later, did I allow myself the luxury of sitting down and listening to a lot of Charlie Parker. Now, of course, it's a sheer delight.
"Jimmy Rowles was on a tour we did very early on — it must have been '52 — with Charlie Parker and Chet Baker and Shelly Manne. And Jimmy noticed that effect, even as it was happening. The Charlie Parker effect. It was a weird time. It was ... it's a ridiculous parallel, but it was almost a form of McCarthyism in music. It was equally analogous to a totalitarian state, in some ways. You either played the Holy Writ, or the party line, or you were outlawed. If you're a kid, starting out as a musician, Lord knows it's a rough enough situation anyway. You won't get gigs and you'll be starving to death and the only thing you'll have to value is the judgment of your peer group. And if you play one chorus, and they say, 'Good-bye,' that's it, you've been excommunicated. So whatever's going on, you've got to go along with it — or come up with something better. And come up with something better that Charlie Parker? Lot's o' luck.
"And what is that?
Singing had broken out in the apartment above us. The lady who lived there, whom I had taken to calling Crazy Sheila, belonged to some fundamentalist religious group, and she and her friends would hold orgies of hymn-singing. They were always very out of tune.
"Amazing," Paul said, sitting in an armchair and staring at the ceiling.
But our conversation resumed, in spite of the accompaniment. I said, "I remember once asking you why you didn't write more, and you said, 'Because I keep getting constantly tinier screwdrivers and trying to fix up the first eight bars of the tune.'"
"Yeah," he said. "There's a way around that, which I haven't been able to get into yet. I should have done it ten years ago. Anybody who plays jazz of course is always composing. If you listen to your out-takes or concert records ... somebody taking the last eight bars of somebody's chorus, and developing an entire chorus out of it... You can develop, as you know, certainly a song out of any four or eight-bar jazz phrase."
"Right. And I hear fragments from all kinds of things that really should have been songs. Could have been. And that's the only way to do it. When you're playing jazz, obviously you have to keep going. You don't get to use your tiny screwdrivers and go back and rewrite."
"At least you got around to finishing Take Five," I said.
"Take Five was one of the exceptions to the rule,"Paul said. "It was just going to be the original phrase. I had the middle part kind of vaguely in mind. I thought, 'We could do this, but then we'd have to modulate again, and we're already playing in five-four and six flats, and that's enough for one day's work.' Fortunately, we tried it, and that's where you get the main part of the song."
"That album, Time Out," I said, "was really the launch of all the new time figures in jazz. I don't think that Dave's ever been given credit for that album, really. I can remember one critic who panned Dave for affectation because of the so-called 'odd' time figures. Yet Dave pointed the way, and now those figures are comparatively common."
At this point, Crazy Sheila's Holy Rollers swelled into a rousing chorus. Then they subsided again. "I never did get that story straight about you and George Avakain and the phone call," I said.
"I did four albums on RCA, with Jim Hall. Not counting the one with strings. When I began with RCA, George Avakian was very high up in the company. He was sort of second in command. Sometime between the album with strings and Take Ten there was a change in the management and George Avakian was selling pencils in a tin cup outside RCA. He was really very much at loose ends. He had no office, so if you wanted to reach him, he still had a few freelance projects to complete. Like, he was assigned to completing what RCA regarded as my disastrous series of albums with Jim Hall. He was a freelance producer, and he would come in like a freelance drummer, and he would say to people, 'If you want to reach me, I'll be in Studio B at RCA between two and five p.m.' And so of course you would turn up for the date, and George would be there, and the phone would constantly ring, because those were his three office hours for the week. Ordinarily, that wouldn't make that much difference, because it was a very do-it-yourself operation anyway. We'd play until we thought we had something that sounded good and then go and listen to it back.
"There was one tune...we were really scuffling with it. And along about take twenty-seven, by then you should really face facts, if you're a jazz group. You should say, 'We're not going to do this tune now or ever, let's do something else.' We finally did a take, one where I thought the intro made it, and we solved the hassle in the chorus, and the rhythm worked out, and the solos sounded good, and nobody played any wrong changes, and the modulation worked out and the ending worked out, and I was getting a little punchy by then.
"So we stopped, and after the end of the take I looked at the control room, to see some sign of humanity, a nod, a wink, anything. And there's George on the phone. And that did it.
"I ran out into the hall. They had a pay phone there. I called RCA. I said, 'Can I have Studio B?' 'Certainly, sir.. .That line is busy. Can you hold?' I said, 'Yyyyyesss, Ma'am.' She said, I can ring now.' Rrrrring. 'Hello, is this George Avakian?' 'Yes it is, who's this?' 'It's Paul Desmond. How was that last take?'"
Crazy Sheila's group was now into Rock of Ages or some such. "Good Lord!" Paul said. I steered him back to the subject of the book; I really wanted him to write it.
"Well, the whole book thing," he said, "it's kind of silly, really, in a way. I realized that when I began to hang out at Elaine's in New York. [Norman] Mailer goes in there, and George Plimpton, and various lesser luminaries and occasional visitors, and I discovered that almost without exception... I'm not sure about Mailer, if he ever gets through with the bullfighting... but a lot of the other writers would much prefer being jazz players. Frank Conroy is a glowing example. He's an excellent writer, but he's also a very good piano player. He's worked obscure little places on the Cape, where he lives now, and in New York."
"Do you know why they all want to be musicians?"
"Possibly because being a jazz musician is one of the best things in the world to be."
"Uhhh... Well, if you can solve a few of the problems... A few? Ha-ha! Finding the right guys to play with. Finding people to pay you money to play. Travelling, because you can't stay in one place all the time and play really what you want to. Just the process of playing jazz is immensely rewarding. It's more transitory than other things, which is good in some ways, bad in others. Obviously, because if you play a lousy chorus, it's gone forever. Of course, if you write a lousy page you rip it out of the typewriter. That follows too. But there's no such thing as sitting staring at a blank piece of paper. The time comes to play, and you make noise, of some sort or another. I don't know whether you can do that in writing."
"All true," I said. "But there's something else. Walter Pater said it, and Conrad quotes it someplace: 'All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.' And I think I know what he means. Music is direct emotion, and it is abstract. It requires no subject matter. All the other arts must work on the emotions indirectly. And painting, certainly since the invention of photography, is attempting to dispense with subject matter, resulting in some of the fraudulent nonsense of modern art. James Joyce and Gunther Grass have struggled to achieve something beyond narrative in the novel and as far as I'm concerned have attained only triumphs of technique. You see this attempt at abstraction in some of the crap that passes for modern poetry, and certainly in the more pretentious rock lyrics. Each art is at its best when it does what only it can do. It is not at its best when it is trying to do what another art does better. And music does abstraction better than any of the other arts. I think that's what Pater meant, and why those guys would rather be musicians than writers."
"Yes," Paul said. "I must engrave that line someplace. I like that a lot. There's another line that came from Milton, of all people. The most perfect definition of the state of mind required to play jazz — 'with wanton heed and giddy cunning'. If you want to carve that any place, that's how you play jazz."
The afternoon waned. There was another outburst of hymnody from Crazy Sheila and her friends. Paul looked at the ceiling and said, "Does this group take requests?"
We drove him to the job. "I'm not like Zoot," he said. "Zoot can always go straight ahead, but I'm always very affected by what's going on around me."
The opening went beautifully. Paul was so in love with the newfound rhythm section that he was on the phone within days to record companies in New York. Eventually Creed Taylor recorded him and Ed Bickert (and Ron Carter and Connie Kay) and Horizon issued an album recorded at Bourbon Street with Thompson, Bickert, and Fuller.
We had wonderful times with Paul during that engagement. He played brilliantly. Not until the last set of the last night did he allow himself so much as one drink.
I had no way of knowing, of course, that I would only ever see him once more.
To be sure, he stayed in touch with us by telephone after we moved to California.
"Hello there," said the voice on the telephone one day, and I knew before he had completed the greeting that it was Paul Breitenfeld. The telephone line sounded exceptionally clear. "Where are you?" I said.
"Well actually, I'm in town. At the Century Plaza." A movie producer wanted him to do a score for a picture and he was here for a day or so to discuss it. And he wanted my wife and me to have dinner with him that evening. There was an odd urgency to his tone. He hardly needed to press us to see him. I said we'd pick him up, and we set a time.
I suggested that we go to the Cock and Bull on Sunset Boulevard, a few paces from the border of Beverly Hills. It is a replica of an English pub so faithful that it surprises British visitors. I thought Paul would like it, and he did.
We laughed a lot and retold old stories, including the one about the night we nearly got shot. The 1960 Indiana Jazz Festival was produced by a man named Hal Lobree, in Evansville. I was the master of ceremonies. On the evening of that Junior Chamber of Commerce party, the Brubeck Quartet played. Lobree was having a post-concert party at his house. Paul and I induced Dave — for once — to come along. Lobree told some young man connected with the festival to drive us to his place, and gave him directions. He told us that if we got there before he arrived, we should simply open a window and let ourselves in.
The driver got lost. At some point we pulled up at the crossing of two unpaved country roads amid corn that seemed eight or ten feet high. There was a darkened grocery store beside which there was a telephone booth. Lighting matches to see, our driver tried to call someone or other to find out if they could tell him where we were from a description of this nameless intersection. Paul and I were standing in the middle of the road. He was recalling a Warner Brothers animated cartoon in which the coyote tries to drop an anvil from a great cliff onto the roadrunner. His sound effects were vivid, and we were laughing madly and sophomorically.
The driver returned none the wiser and we got back into the car and resumed our feckless wandering through the Indiana night. And suddenly the terrain began to fit Lobree's description. Then we came to a house that just had to be his. It was all in darkness. While Dave and the driver waited in the car, Paul and I walked up the driveway and opened a window. I put one leg over the sill and was halfway into the living room when a light went on at the top of a flight of stairs and a man descended them. He was wearing an old-fashioned nightshirt and, more significantly, he was carrying a shotgun. For what seemed an eternity I tried to process this information, and then understood and said, "Run like hell, Paul, we're in the wrong house!" And we pounded down the driveway and leaped into the car, landing on top of Dave. "Go go go!" we shouted to the driver, who took off. We disentangled the arms and legs, and Paul and I gasped with laughter. "Can you imagine the headline?" I said. "Jazz Musicians and Writer Killed in Burglary Try."
And that sent Paul into another strangled fit of laughter.
We never did find Hal Lobree's party.
We laughed about it again in the Cock and Bull. And then Paul began to talk. He seemed to have a great need to do so that night. He told us about a girl he had been seeing, which was unusual enough in itself. He talked about his life at length and in detail. Never before had he been so self-revealing. Deliberately so. He seemed curiously happy. Finally he said, "Don't you think this'd make a good book?"
"Yes," I said. "Why don't you write it."
"No," he said softly but firmly. "You write it."
I was puzzled. Later I realized that he was in possession of a bit of information that I was not. He knew he was dying.
In the months after that, Mulligan kept me posted on the telephone. Even as Paul wasted away, he made us laugh. When Gerry asked him how he felt, he said, "As if I had just driven nonstop from Vancouver for a one-nighter."
He spent his last weeks at home. In time he became too weak to go to the door to admit friends, so he left it unlocked. The doorman downstairs knew who was to be admitted. Among them was Charles Mingus.
Mingus walked into the bedroom, where Paul lay sleeping. Mingus stood there for a long time in vigil. Then Paul awoke. Mingus was dressed all in black, including a cape and a leather hat. "I thought The Man had come for me!" Paul told Dave later.
Mingus also told the story, and said, "Will you come to my bedside when I'm dying, Dave?" But Mingus went to Mexico in a vain search for effective treatment and died there. "So I wasn't able to go to him," Dave said. "It really bothered me."
Paul specified in his will (which left his money to the Red Cross) that he be cremated "because I don't want to be a monument on the way to the airport." All the highways to New York airports seem to pass cemeteries.
His wishes were followed. Another old friend, Jimmy Lyons, the one-time San Francisco disc jockey and founder of the Monterey Jazz Festival, who had known him since the early days, took the urn containing Paul's ashes and a pitcher of martinis up in an airplane over the sea off the rugged coastal stretch known as Big Sur, which Paul loved. He opened the plane's window to scatter the ashes and drink a last martini to Paul, and the wind blew both in his face.
"Thanks a lot, Paul," Jimmy said, and laughed.
A day or two after the Hollywood bowl concert, Gerry and his wife Franca drove the seventy miles from Los Angeles to spend the day with us in Ojai. We went to lunch at the Ojai Valley Country Club, because the food there is adequate and the scenery beautiful. And again, we talked of Paul and his way with a phrase and his talent for laughter. Paul said that listening to Ornette Coleman was like being locked in a red room with your eyelids pinned open. He said that Miles Davis solos reminded him of a man constructing a mobile while riding a unicycle.
Gerry said, "When Eubie Blake made that remark that if he'd known he was going to live this long, he'd have taken better care of himself, I laughed. And then I thought, 'Hey, wait a minute. That's not so funny. He's got a point.'"
"Paul must have operated on Joe E. Lewis' maxim," I said. "'You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.'"
Somewhere I read an obituary, published in 1860, which said of a man that, having lived all his life in good health, "he succumbed to old age and died at fifty-one." Now some of our sexual and romantic icons, such as Linda Evans and Raquel Welch, are in their forties, a top model is in her fifties, and Ricardo Montalban is in his sixties. In the old film Strike Up the Band, the woman who plays the mother of the sixteen-year-old high school bandleader played by Mickey Rooney is elderly, plump, dowdy, and wears her hair in a bun.
"That's right," Gerry said. "In those days the mother was played by Jane Darwell.
The attitude has changed. That's what makes the difference."
Paul was fifty-three when he died.
Mulligan does not easily admit to sentiment. And like Paul, he expresses his romanticism in his playing, tempering it with a smile. But he has confessed on occasion that he too misses our friend quite badly.
Gerry said, just before we left the restaurant, that he had no idea what an avocado tree looked like. As we emerged into the bright sunlight, I pointed up to the mountains and said, "There, these rows of trees on the slopes, they're avocados."
Paul Desmond’s virtuosity is on display in the following video montage of the sculpture of Auguste Rodin which is set to the pianist Dave Brubeck’s Quartet’s performance of Someday My Prince Will Come. I think it is among the best of Paul’s recorded solos.