Interviews » Biographers

Doug Ramsey, author of Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond

 

 

Doug Ramsey,

author of

Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond

 

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Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond is the story of a jazz artist who transcended genres to establish one of the most immediately recognizable sounds in all of music. Long before his success as the alto saxophonist with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, decades before he wrote “Take Five ,” Desmond determined that he would be himself, never a disciple or an imitator, whatever the cost.

The only son of a doting musical father and an emotionally troubled mother, as a young boy in San Francisco he was separated from his parents and sent to live for years with relatives three thousand miles away. Desmond came out of the Army after World War Two to struggle with uncertainty and indecision as he developed his individuality against the prevailing jazz winds of the day. He eventually became a friend and admirer of the bebop genius Charlie Parker, but early on he swore that he would never be just another horn in the crowd of Parker acolytes. Desmond was torn for a time between a career as a writer and one as a musician. Though he never abandoned his gift for writing, music won, and he concentrated on clarinet, then the saxophone. He worked in dance bands and dixieland groups, entertained in amusement parks and resorts. He took whatever work he could get as a player.

In 1947, Desmond and Brubeck discovered that, despite their stylistic differences, they had an uncanny musical empathy. Finally, in 1951 they formed the Quartet. After three years of travail and near poverty, the band became one of the most successful jazz groups in history and Desmond one of the music’s most celebrated figures. The classic Dave Brubeck Quartet with Desmond, bassist Eugene Wright and drummer Joe Morello traveled the world, won polls, sold records in the hundreds of thousands, opened a market for jazz concerts on college campuses and became the only jazz band since the Swing Era to be a fixture in popular music. With the immense success of Desmond’s “Take Five,” the Brubeck Quartet became the first million-selling jazz group.

Casual, urbane, an intellectual noted for his wit, he married for a short time, then for the rest of his life remained single and immensely attractive to women. He had many acquaintances but few intimate friends, and he went to lengths to keep his close relationships in separate compartments. Desmond never conquered his basic shyness or the lack of confidence that made him a lonely man in spite of his success and acclaim.

Long before he became a leading jazz critic, Doug Ramsey met Desmond, became his friend and remained close for more than twenty years. They shared many interests in addition to music and spent hours at a time in a conversation that continued until shortly before Desmond died in 1977. Preparing to write Paul’s story, Ramsey marshaled his skills as a veteran print and broadcast journalist. He interviewed scores of people from all periods of Desmond’s life, grade school through his lonely final days. He talked with women who were romantically involved with Paul, Gloria Steinem among them. He discovered a cache of correspondence and documents that helped disclose the hidden story of Paul’s early years. After a long search, he found Duane, Paul’s former wife and intellectual sparring partner, who remained Desmond’s friend long after they parted but was a figure of mystery even to Brubeck and other colleagues. He talked with leading musicians who were contemporaries, and combed through dozens of publications for reviews, articles and interviews. As Ramsey did his work, Desmond the private man with great joys and great troubles began to emerge from the shadows to fill out the public image of a blithely self-contained star soloist spinning out seamlessly inventive musical stories. #

The result is  Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond, a book the critic Gary Giddins calls “…the book Doug Ramsey was born to write; a love letter from one friend to another; an appreciation by a gifted critic for a great artist…The telling is lyrical, funny, nostalgic, provocative, and allusive — just like a Paul Desmond solo.”

In our May  9, 2005 interview, Ramsey joins us in a conversation about the life of one of the most accomplished and popular artists in the history of jazz.

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photo Breitenfeld Family Collection

Paul Desmond’s first publicity photograph, c. 1951

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“The qualities in music which I considered most important — and still do — were beauty, simplicity, originality, discrimination, and sincerity.”

- Paul Desmond

Out of Nowhere

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JJM  Your book, Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond, is a detailed biography filled with one hundred fifty photos in a coffee table sized book. How were you able to convince the book’s publisher that Desmond was worthy of such a biographical treatment?

DR  It worked the other way. The publisher actually approached me and asked me to write the book. No convincing was needed.

JJM  What was their interest in Desmond? Was there a personal friendship?

DR  The publisher of the book, Parkside Publications, is headed by Malcolm Harris, who is a Renaissance man of sorts; he owns his own publishing company, law firm, and is himself a clarinetist and baritone saxophonist. He published a book previously about the life of Buddy DeFranco — which was authored by a couple of French writers — and decided he wanted to next do a biography of Desmond. At first he thought about writing it himself but concluded it would be too overwhelming, so he asked people for author recommendations, and enough suggested that he talk to me.

JJM  You had a personal friendship with Desmond spanning many years…

DR  Yes, I did. We met in 1955, and he died in 1977. For the first five or six of those years, we were merely acquaintances, but we became good friends in the early sixties and remained so until he died.

JJM  When you set out to write this biography, did you know anything about all the source material that was available in the way of his letters?

DR  No, and in fact, other than Paul’s cousin Rick Breitenfeld, nobody did. I had this book in the back of my mind for many years but had never begun the research, in part because Paul was such a private person. He never discussed his early life or his family with anybody other than Dave Brubeck, and only tangentially with him. He kept his life very compartmentalized. Because of this, and because I didn’t believe there would be much material available on his life, I had pretty much persuaded myself that it would be a very thin book.

However, after having agreed to write the book, I did a research trip to New York, where I met Rick Breitenfeld, who came down from his home in Pennsylvania. We met for lunch and had a nice conversation, in which he gave me some wonderful information about Paul I had never heard before, particularly about his grandfather and other family members. Two or three days after I returned home, I received an email message from Rick saying that our talk had inspired him to go down into his basement to find out what was in all those boxes he got after Paul’s death. During his search, he discovered written correspondence between Paul and his father Emil that took place between the time Paul was eight-years-old until Emil’s death in the mid-sixties — correspondence that was more like that of two intellectual equals rather than that typical of father and son. They shared the same interests in things like literature, music, and chess, and carried on very open discussions about women and relationships.

JJM Yes, it seemed to be an incredible relationship, one that anchored a childhood made pretty complex when, due to his mother’s mental illness, he was sent to an uncle’s home in upstate New York. Did Paul know of his mother’s illness prior to his moving to New York?

DR Yes. It is unclear if her condition could be termed a “mental illness,” but it certainly could be said that she was emotionally disturbed. She had a fear of touching anything or anyone that included her not wanting to lay her hands on her infant son — for instance, she always wore rubber dishwashing gloves when she bathed him. Now, while I can imagine that would have had to have an affect on Paul, he never talked about it, and since he was never in psychiatric analysis, we will never know. The important thing about that is that Emil taught him to be sensitive to her and accept that his mother had problems, so he grew up viewing her condition with a certain amount of equanimity and was even able to occasionally kid her about it in some of the letters. So, while he had this difficult relationship with his mother, it was balanced by a wonderful, loving, emotionally rewarding relationship with his father.

JJM What characteristics did he inherit from his father?

DR  A deep intellect and a wonderful, subtle, wry sense of humor that comes out in his letters and in his “Desmondisms.”  His father also had a somber, brooding, and melancholy side that was a part of Paul’s character as well.

JJM How did Desmond’s jazz career begin?

DR  It began with his study of the clarinet in high school, which he played after his father dissuaded him from studying the violin. His father told him to take the violin back because violinists don’t make any money, but clarinetists do. At this time — the late thirties — the clarinet was the hottest instrument in jazz. Since his dad was not a jazz musician, it is doubtful that Paul had an inclination about being a jazz musician at this point. His father was an arranger for the legitimate theater, for stage shows, and he was a silent film organist, so he knew thousands and thousands of tunes. Dick Collins, a trumpet player who played with Desmond in the Brubeck Octet, was one of the few people who ever visited the Breitenfeld home in San Francisco, and he remembers that Paul showed him file cabinet after file cabinet of popular song sheet music. So when you hear all of those quotes from popular songs of the era that Paul plays in his solos, it is because he knew them from the time he was a little boy.

JJM  Emil’s work must have stimulated Desmond’s curiosity about modern music.

DR  Unquestionably.

JJM Why did he choose to play alto rather than tenor sax?

DR  His dad probably had something to do with that as well, although his friend Hal Strack may have also advised him. At the time, the country was alive with tenor sax bands, and at first, that is what Paul played because he could get work with it. The reed section in those bands usually consisted of three tenor saxophones. While there was a lot of work for tenor players, once Paul decided he wanted to be a jazz musician Strack encouraged him to play alto. Strack felt that if Desmond played tenor he would be competing with the likes of Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and dozens of others, but if he played alto, the competition wouldn’t be as stiff — primarily Willie Smith, Benny Carter, and Johnny Hodges. Basically, Paul was a clarinet player for many years, but he started playing alto after high school and more during the time he was in the Army band at the Presidio in San Francisco.

JJM  Strack said that Desmond’s two influences were most likely Lester Young for his soft palette, and Artie Shaw for his lyricism.

DR. Yes, I think that is a good assessment.

JJM  Why did Desmond feel he needed to change his name?

DR  This is one of Desmond’s compartments there isn’t a lot of information about, so I don’t really know for certain. His fiancée’s mother once asked him that question, and he told her that Breitenfeld was too long to fit on a 78 rpm record label, but that was just one of his many jokes about that. He also told people he got the name out of the phone book, from the musician’s union directory, or from an old girlfriend — I can’t be certain about how many versions of that story he told. According to Strack, in 1941 he and Desmond went to Sweets Ballroom in Oakland — the major dance emporium in the Bay area where all the big bands came to play — to hear Gene Krupa’s band. A singer named Howard Dulany had just left the band, replaced by a fellow who previously had a long, unpronounceable Italian name, but who now used the name Johnny Desmond. Paul told Strack that he liked the name Desmond because it was interesting, unusual, and easy to pronounce, and that if he were to ever change his name, it would be to Desmond. He didn’t actually change his name for five or six years after that — in 1946 — and when he did, he went to City Hall and had it changed legally, and became Desmond from then on.

JJM  I guess it could be said that someone who imagines himself needing a name change has pretty large aspirations…

DR  Yes, he did, although he certainly hadn’t decided at that point to make a career of being a full time musician, because he was torn equally between being a writer and a musician. Memos that he wrote to himself concerning this struggle are in the book. In them, he often questions himself about his writing ability and what he had to do to become a first class writer. He mapped out elaborate plans for selling stories to pulp magazines, drama and mystery scripts to network radio. It is fascinating reading. He mapped out campaigns he was going to launch in order to convert himself into being a writer, but he never used them. And, as I say in one the chapters, I think he chose to be a musician because something inside him told him it was the right thing for him to do.

Writing is really tough work that takes a lot of commitment. Paul had the great gift of being able to express himself by improvising jazz choruses on harmonic structures, then moving on to the next solo. It was creative work that, unlike writing, didn’t require him to go back and revise and polish and think about it again. He was finished with what he was working on the minute he finished the solo. So, no matter how much preparation a jazz soloist has done, once his individual solo is done, it’s done. Eric Dolphy said something to the effect that once it is over, it is gone into the air. In that sense, being a jazz soloist was the perfect thing for Paul to be. It was relatively easy for him, he could be intensely creative in doing it, he got satisfaction from it, and he didn’t have to worry about polishing and revising. The work fit his temperament.

JJM Shortly after Desmond and Brubeck met, Brubeck said, “I was using a lot of wild things in polytonality, playing in two keys at once, and Paul said, ‘He’s stark raving mad.’ But it was more – or less – a joke. He knew I could really play.” What was their early relationship like?

DR  That statement concerned their very brief first meeting. At the time, Desmond was playing in the Army band at the Presidio in San Francisco, and Brubeck was in the Army band at Camp Haan near Los Angeles — on the verge of being shipped overseas as a rifleman. But he had one chance to avoid that fate, auditioning for the Presidio band, which their mutual friend Dave von Kriedt helped arrange. The audition was basically a jam session, during which Desmond and Brubeck met and played together for the first time. It was about that session that Desmond made the “stark-raving mad” observation, which was, of course, said in jest. Brubeck, by the way, didn’t make the band. He went to Europe and was in the Battle of the Bulge.

They didn’t get together again until 1946, when the Brubeck Octet — an experimental group at Mills College studying with the French composer Darius Milhaud — needed an alto player. Desmond was recommended. He fit right into that band, and that’s where Dave and Paul began to regularly play together in a rather formalized setting. They never got into freewheeling jazz playing until he sat in at the Geary Cellar in San Francisco with a group known as The Three D’s. That was where they discovered the astounding extra-sensory perception in their playing together, and melded the concepts that we hear in their earlier recordings. Shortly after that is when Desmond decided he would work toward a career in music rather than writing.

JJM And Desmond subsequently led the group at the Band Box?

DR  Yes. Desmond got the gig at the Band Box and he needed a rhythm section, so he stole the one from the Three D’s Group at the Geary Cellar. The group at the Band Box was made up of Brubeck, Desmond, bassist Norman Bates, and the singer Francis Lynne. The experience of working with Brubeck at the Band Box is what led Desmond to tell Marian McPartland in a Down Beat article, “If you think Dave is far out now, you should have heard him then. He made Cecil Taylor sound like Lester Lanin.”

JJM  He reflected that he wished he had a tape of one of those nights just to hear what was going on.

DR  So do I.

JJM  I am sure their work together at the Band Box was a real highlight of Desmond’s career. This job didn’t come without a cost, however. As a result of a decision Desmond made, their relationship as friends and musicians was severely tested. Brubeck truly despised him for a while…

DR Yes. Desmond accepted a job at a Northern California resort called the Feather River Inn, and Dave said he would take over the Band Box gig. However, Desmond felt he would be coming back to it, and refused to give up the job. That left Brubeck high and dry. Norman Bates got work right away because there was a need for bass players, but there wasn’t all that much work for piano players — particularly for those as adventurous as Brubeck. So he ended up really scuffling for a while, making sandwiches in office buildings and living on fruits and vegetables Dave and his wife Iola would get after the market closed. It was a tough time for him. He wound up getting a job in a little place in Clear Lake, and eventually through connections with the disc jockey Jimmy Lyons, he worked a job at the Burma Lounge in Oakland.

At about this same time, Desmond was just coming off the road with Jack Fina’s band. He had been in New York and other big cities, and showed up at the Brubeck house on 18th Street in San Francisco, beaming, charming as he could be. Brubeck had previously told hnis wife Iola that he never wanted to see Paul Desmond again, and that if he ever came to the house, not to let him in. Well, she let him in, and he charmed her. Iola told Dave that he just had to see Paul. Dave relented and after a tense few minutes, things relaxed to the point where a reconciliation was underway.

JJM Prior to that visit to Brubeck’s house, Desmond wrote out a master plan for rejoining Brubeck. He wrote, “From now on until you either make it or don’t, try for once in your life to do something with consistent, unremitting, furious singleness of purpose, determination, and cheerful, optimistic drive. See how it works. Personally, I think you’ll make it. Nothing is even remotely near as vital as getting with Dave. Not writing, schoolwork, money, women, leisure, certainly not mulling over books, magazines, correspondence, records, etc. Forget the tape recorder has any other uses than to play Brubeck.”  How did Desmond get back into Brubeck’s good graces?

DR  All Dave can remember is that he was hanging diapers out on the back porch when Paul came out. Their visit was very chilly there for a few minutes, but once they got to talking, Dave simply relented. It may have been at that point that Paul asked if he could come sit in at the Burma Lounge, which he and Dick Collins both did fairly often.

This raises the interesting point that critics and musicians have dogged Brubeck about all of his life, which has to do with this theory that Brubeck never would have made it without Desmond because, in their estimataion, Desmond was the secret to the success of the quartet. I must say that I strongly disagree with that, because what made their success was the combination of their playing, and a magical ability to be on the same wavelength.