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Paul Desmond

One of my favorite saxophonists was Paul Desmond, who worked with pianist Dave Brubeck for 18 years. I sat in the front row at a concert at the height of the quartet’s success, perhaps 15 feet from Paul’s bell, absorbing every dulcet note. At intermission, I found them backstage and got to ask him a couple of geeky questions. He gave me this life-altering (at least to a budding saxophonist) advice. “What kind of reeds do you play?” “Rico 2-1/2.” “What kind of mouthpiece do you play?” “I dunno; I think it’s a Woodwind G5. It was in the case when I bought the horn.” To a 17-year-old struggling under a “it must be my equipment” image, it was exactly what I needed to hear. I interpreted his two quick sentences to say, “It’s not the horn. It’s you. Find out what you want to sound like and then play like that.” So I went home, threw out all but one mouthpiece, and learned to make the sound that I wanted. (Which was, of course, remarkably like Paul Desmond!) I’ll never forget him.

Paul is best known for his composition "Take Five," which helped make Brubeck's record Time Out a mega-hit. Desmond's saxophone playing was always marked by an unusual fluidity and warmth. Through a number of solo records, and duet recordings, especially with guitarist Jim Hall, he expanded on a relaxed but sophisticated sound.

Who knew he also was an acerbic wit, ironic and self-deprecating simultaneously? Here are some quotes from Paul Caulfield's Paul Desmond - Ephemera web site.

"I have won several prizes as the world's slowest alto player, as well as a special award in 1961 for quietness."

"I was unfashionable before anyone knew who I was."

"I tried practicing for a few weeks and ended up playing too fast."

"I think I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to sound like a dry martini."

On the secret of his tone: "I honestly don't know! It has something to do with the fact that I play illegally."

When asked by Gene Lees what accounted for the melancholy in his playing he replied, "Wellllll, that I'm not playing better."

He was an English major in college. His reason for not pursuing a literary career, "I could only write at the beach, and I kept getting sand in my typewriter."

"Writing is like jazz. It can be learned, but it can't be taught."

Of writer Jack Kerouac he said, "I hate the way he writes. I kind of love the way he lives, though."

Of Vogue fashion models, he said, "Sometimes they go around with guys who are scuffling -- for a while. But usually they end up marrying some cat with a factory. This is the way the world ends, not with a whim but a banker."

"Sometimes 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.'"

His response to the annoying banality of an interviewer, "You're beginning to sound like a cross between David Frost and David Susskind, and that is a cross I cannot bear."

Shortly before the Dave Brubeck Quartet disbanded, "We're working as if it were going out of style -- which of course it is."

Of yogurt he said, "I don't like it, but Dave is always trying things like that. He's a nutritional masochist. He'll eat anything as long as he figures it's good for him."

Of contact lenses: "Not for me. If I want to tune everybody out, I just take off my glasses and enjoy the haze."

On Ornette Coleman's playing, "It's like living in a house where everything's painted red."

Doug Ramsey wrote that Desmond, on seeing Barbara Jones' oil painting of four cats stalking a mouse, said, "Ah, the perfect album cover for when I record with the Modern Jazz Quartet." Ramsey pointed out that the mouse was mechanical and Desmond responded, "In that case, Cannonball will have to make the record."

Desmond's fondness for scotch was well known. So, when in early 1976, a physical examination showed lung cancer, he was ironically pleased that his liver was fine. "Pristine, perfect. One of the great livers of our time. Awash in Dewars and full of health."