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

Happy birthday Paul Desmond!


Paul Desmond (November 25, 1924 – May 30, 1977) was a jazz alto saxophonist. He is best remembered for his work in The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Along with Brubeck, he became a poster child of the West Coast's "cool jazz" scene.


Paul Desmond was born Paul Emil Breitenfeld in San Francisco, California to Shirley and Emil Aron Breitenfeld. His father played piano at the movie theaters during silent films. Desmond spent much of his childhood with relatives in New York because of trouble at home. He learned to play the violin despite the fact that his father forbade him. Desmond also played the clarinet while he attended San Francisco Polytechnic High School. Once he began attending San Francisco State College, he took up the alto saxophone. 

After three years serving in the military during World War II, Desmond returned to the San Francisco Bay Area and began working at the Bandbox. Soon, he began working with Dave Brubeck in San Francisco. Desmond hired Brubeck to play with him at The Feather River Inn near Reno. However, Desmond soon halved Brubeck's pay and later fired him altogether. (Image source)

When Brubeck began doing well with his trio in San Francisco, Desmond came to him to beg for a position. Anecdotally, Brubeck wouldn't speak to him at first, and only agreed to let him play if he first babysat his children.


The Dave Brubeck Quartet went on to play together from 1951 to 1967. They often played at colleges including Oberlin College, Ohio University, and University of Michigan. Some of their major albums were Jazz at Oberlin (1953), Jazz at the College of the Pacific (1953), and Brubeck's debut on Jazz Goes to College (1954). At the height of their success in the early 1960s, the Brubeck Quartet was releasing up to four albums a year. Many of their albums were reflections on their travels like Jazz Impressions of the USA (1956), Jazz Impressions of Eurasia (1958), Jazz Impressions of Japan (1964), and Jazz Impressions of New York (1964).



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williams_ted_paul_desmond_LAfter the group broke up, Desmond performed at the New Orleans Jazz Festival with Gerry Mulligan. He also worked with Jim Hall and Chet Baker.

He began playing regularly at the Half Note in New York City.

Desmond and Brubeck were utter opposites; Brubeck was a family man while Desmond never held onto one girl for too long. However, they were always extremely close. Desmond left his saxophone to Brubeck's son, Michael, when he died. (Image © Ted Williams)

Desmond was a heavy smoker and drinker. He also dabbled in some LSD usage. His habits resulted in his death from lung cancer. Desmond was not only a gifted musician, but also possessed a quick wit. When he learned of his cancer, he reacted positively to the news that his liver was in good health.

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Additional Info

  • Birthday Date: Tuesday, 25 November 2014
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