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Jazz is often a cooperative enterprise. But that doesn’t mean that jazz musicians are always good at cooperating. Far from it, as, for example, Charles Mingus learned when Duke Ellington demanded that he resign from the Ellington Orchestra for having chopped Juan Tizol’s chair in two with a fire ax in the middle of a performance after the trombonist pulled a knife on him.
Probability says that Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond should have gotten along about as well as Tizol and Mingus. An amphetamine-dependent, chain-smoking womanizer certainly doesn’t seem like the ideal partner for an (eventually) deeply Catholic, even-tempered family man. But to understand such an extraordinarily improbable 33-year partnership, we’d better go back to the beginning.
Dave Brubeck, born in December of 1920, was the son of a cattle rancher and his former concert pianist wife, one of three boys. His father decided that, since his two older brothers had chosen to become musicians, Dave would take over the family ranch. He entered the College of the Pacific on track for a degree in veterinary science, but in his first year, the head of the department told him that it was clear he belonged in the conservatory, where he spent all of his free time. Already, Brubeck showed signs of compositional genius, but, because he was unable to sight-read music, he was only allowed to graduate from the program if he promised never to teach piano.
Upon his graduation in 1942, Brubeck joined the army and was sent to Camp Hahn, in Riverside, California. On his way, like many other musicians, to joining Patton’s Third Army in Europe, he was transferred through San Francisco, and ended up sitting next to, and playing with, members of the 253rd American Ground Forces Band stationed at the Presidio. One member of this band in particular, Paul Breitenfeld, praised his playing, saying, “Man, like Wigsville! You really grooved me with those nutty changes.” Brubeck replied, “White man speak with forked tongue.”
Spending most of 1944 and early 1945 near the German front lines, the pianist was taken off of combat duty when he volunteered to form a band of wounded men to play for soldiers recovering from combat fatigue. The Wolf Pack was the first integrated band of WWII. After being discharged in 1946, he took advantage of the GI Bill, and enrolled at Mills College to study under Darius Milhaud.
The late 40s, though, also gave Brubeck the opportunity to reunite with Paul Breitenfeld, now Paul Desmond. Desmond was the son of Emil Breitenfeld, a San Francisco-based pianist and composer, who had studied clarinet from the age of 12, before switching to alt sax in his first year at San Francisco State College. He was drafted into the army that same year, and discharged 4 years later, returning to California to work as a backing musician for various groups. Occasionally, he joined The Three D’s, a combo Brubeck worked in at the Geary Cellar.
However, Desmond had grander ambitions than this. When the owner of the Band Box in Redwood City offered him a residency, provided he could form a band, he convinced everyone in the D’s, except for their leader, Daryl Cutler, to move with him. Brubeck was so fascinated with the growing musical rapport between himself and Desmond that he willingly took the huge pay cut, from $100 a week to $42, despite fears that he may not be able to support his wife and two young children. For a few weeks, things went spectacularly, until Desmond was offered another, more lucrative residency at the Feather River Inn. He took two of the musicians who composed his quartet, hired a new pianist, and refused to let Brubeck take over his former position, promising that he would be back in three months. He never returned.
With few other prospects, Brubeck accepted a job at a remote tavern near Santa Rosa, and, working for scale, was forced to move his family into a corrugated tin shack behind the establishment. “I never want to see Paul Desmond again,” he told his wife, Iola. She was instructed to turn him away if he ever turned up, and to be as vicious as she needed (or wanted) in doing that. He gradually worked his way back from this musical death sentence, moving to San Francisco, and recording albums with a trio which were well received by Jimmy Lyons, an influential area disc jockey, and future Fantasy label owners Max and Soul Weiss.
It was here that Desmond arrived back on the scene. He had heard the recordings and realized his mistake.
“But one day,…Desmond came to the door. Iola let him in. Dave was on the back porch pinning diapers to a clothesline. Iola was susceptible to Paul’s charm from the first time she met him. She told Gene Lees forty years later that he looked so forlorn, she went out back and told her husband ‘You just have to see him.’ Brubeck did, and Iola said ‘he was full of promises to Dave. He said ‘if you just let me play with you, I’ll babysit, I’ll wash your car.’ Brubeck was unable to keep up his resistance.”
By all reports, Desmond was a very devoted babysitter, and it took Darius, one of Dave’s sons, almost until adulthood to realize that Paul wasn’t truly his uncle.
In 1951, he put together the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and took up residency at the Black Hawk nightclub, touring colleges all over the country to great success. Initially working with Fantasy, where he encouraged the owners to pick up artists like Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, he moved to Columbia within a few years to cut a more advantageous deal on interest share in the recordings. Five years later, eager to start experimenting with different time signatures, he hired the drummer Joe Morello. With Morello, Brubeck felt he had finally found a rhythm section support that could help him venture into the new territory he wanted to explore for a decade, but his integration into the quartet was not quite seamless.
“Now when he got into the group Paul heard him featured and saw Joe get his standing ovation the first time he took a drum solo and then Paul said, “I’m leaving the group. Either he goes or I go.” And I said, “He’s not going, Paul.” Now here’s when you’re a leader and you know you have a group that’s really gonna go to the top if you can hold them together. And so you challenge them and you say, “I’m not letting Joe go because I know that Joe can do on drums what I want to hear. He’s the greatest polyrhythmic drummer I’ve ever worked with.”…I don’t want to lose Paul. I’ll gamble that Paul really doesn’t mean this. So the next night Paul showed up at the job. I didn’t know if [he was] gonna show up. I expected I might have to play a duet with drums and piano.”
When the African-American bassist Eugene Wright joined in 1958, for a State Department of tour Asia and Europe, the classic Brubeck line-up was complete. Fiercely protective of his integrated quartet, Brubeck would cancel any gig where club owners or college administration questioned a racially mixed group, and refused to appear on any tv program which would not give Wright equal camera time as the rest of the quartet.
By the next year, the group had skyrocketed to fame when “Take Five”, a Desmond composition in 5/4 time, became a surprise hit on the album “Time Out.” Columbia initially hesitated to release the record, which contained all original compositions, most in unusual time signatures, but it rapidly went Platinum, and eventually sold more than one million copies. While Desmond’s circus full of bad habits sometimes drove Brubeck to despair, the next 8 years were elysian ones for the group. Decades later, he reflected, “Yeah in spite of…us being very different, musically we were very much the same. Paul called it ESP. I didn’t but Paul did. We just would think together. I never said I disliked Paul’s playing; I just disliked Paul as a young man that had some crazy habits. But never have I ever said anything but compliments about how wonderful he played and how we did belong together.”
All in all, the Quartet produced 31 albums, combining original compositions, old (and new) jazz standards, live performances, studio recordings, and everything in between. Their live performances, though, were something to behold, musically ingenious, and often filled with humor.
“The cops pulled us over and Paul was driving and I guess speeding a little. And, [the cop] told us to follow him and he took us down across the railroad tracks to a farmhouse where there was a judge. And we had to pay a certain amount of cash to this judge. Well, there wasn’t time to rehearse or even talk about this and the next night at the concert, in the middle of a tune, Paul laid out the whole sequence in quotes. Titles of songs that would tell the story. In the first place the cop was supposed to be wearing a broad rim hat like they do in Pennsylvania, kinda, you know like the Canadian Mounted Police. The first quote he played was “Where did you get that hat?” The next thing was “Down by the railroad station, early in the morning.” All wove into another tune — quote after quote after quote that made absolute sense as a jazz chorus. And of course, Paul just strung out these quotes.”
The pianist and his sax player used quotes not just to tell stories, but to give each other musical direction, and, every once in a while, get on each other’s nerves.
“SMITH: You told me he would even do that on stage playing with you and sometimes he’d play, I don’t know, Don’t Fence Me In, I mean he’d…I mean he’d play things that were sorta, you know, giving you the elbow.
DAVE: Oh yeah, he had some good quotes. We’d be playing in the middle of a song and I might hit a chord that was too far out and the next thing he would play, you’d hear “You’re driving me crazy.” What did I do?”
Unlike so many jazz partnerships, The Dave Brubeck Quartet broke up not out of enmity, but because its leader wanted to spend more time with his six children, and “the incomparable, regal Iola,” as Desmond dubbed her. Despite the professional parting of ways, Desmond and Brubeck remained “best friends” and continued to collaborate, with Demond serving as a musical mentor to two of his former bandleader’s offspring. Likewise, as he had when they were touring together, Dave tried to keep Paul from indulging too frequently in his favorite narcotic and alcoholic habits.
“Even when I was disappointed with what he was doing, I still loved him, yeah. And uh, Iola’s seen us go through things where we were trying to steer Paul away from the direction he was going. Then as a bandleader, you’re becoming like a parent which doesn’t work, because these guys are full-grown, brilliant people and it’s very hard to tell a guy, “Look, you’re really doing the wrong thing.” It’s gonna really end up badly. And then you withdraw because you know you’re not gonna be able to do any good and you back off. But that doesn’t mean you stop loving somebody.”
The 1970s saw Brubeck doing much of his touring and recording, in various configurations, with his sons, Desmond was welcome to join in whenever he felt the urge. In 1976, a concert promoter suggested to Brubeck doing a 25 day, 25 city tour to celebrate a quarter-century of The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Despite his eagerness to ‘get the band back together,’ he feared that the others, especially Paul, would turn down the idea. Instead, they reacted with glee and quickly agreed to the adventure. Three days before the end of the tour, Joe Morello was forced to return to Boston in order to have urgent surgery for a retina problem. Before he set off, he made Brubeck, and the others, promise that they would all come together again.
Amidst plans for doing just that, this time in Europe, a required insurance physical revealed that the second reunion would never happen. Paul Desmond had advanced lung cancer. Despite Dave’s pleading, Paul turned down further chemotherapy after one round showed no effect on the progression of the disease, and insisted on joining the Brubeck family group on tour. In February, he played for the last time, with the Brubecks, at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City. Joe Morello, the man who he had threatened to walk out of the group over, and who had become one of his best friends, was, according to Brubeck, “so torn up by his being ill. He insisted that one of his drum students stay with Paul and look after him.”
On May 30th, 1977, Paul Desmond died at the age of 52. Doug Ramsey, a jazz journalist who spent years working on the definitive biography of Desmond, revealed that twenty years after his death, “Whenever we talk, Dave says, ‘Boy, I sure miss Paul Desmond.’”
“We did belong together,” indeed.Published in