Saturday, May 26, 2007

Paul Desmond

Paul Desmond died thirty years ago, May 30, 1977 -- Memorial Day in the US. A web site called has a biography, discography, and other good stuff. The interviews are interesting because Desmond's conversation was a lot like his playing: there's an overall appearance of modesty and self-deprecation on top of an obviously massive talent. There's surface humor beneath which is a deep and serious commitment: wit in the service of high art.

In 2001, Dave Brubeck reminisced about Paul during a show about a PBS documentary. At one point Brubeck tells an anecdote that shows Paul's combination of wit and virtuosity. The interviewer is Hendrick Smith.
SMITH: Paul had this thing about quotes, and he had this thing about telling stories uh, in music. And wasn't there one night when you guys were riding in Pennsylvania and…and the cops pulled him over the side of the road for speeding - I can't remember the story. What….what happened? Do you remember what I'm talking about?

DAVE: 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 farm house 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. 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 -- he could do that.

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 would, you'd hear "You're driving me crazy." What did I do? (laughter)

Dave Brubeck Quartet, "These Foolish Things"

Some Desmond quotes:

Complexity can be a trap. You can have a ball developing a phrase, inverting it, playing it in different keys and times and all. But it's really more introspective than communicative. Like a crossword puzzle compared to a poem.

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

I would also like to thank my father who discouraged me from playing the violin at an early age.

We used to get on planes, and they'd ask who we were, and we'd say, 'The Dave Brubeck Quartet', and they'd say, 'Who?' In later years they'd say, 'Oh', which amounts to the same thing.

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

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 discovered early in life that if you take gym first period, you can go into the wrestling room and sit in the corner and sleep.

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

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."

Desmond's fondness for scotch was well known. So in early 1976 when 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."

If you're still with me, check out PAUL DESMOND interviews CHARLIE PARKER. It's a transcript from a radio broadcast from early 1954. The announcer is John McLellan. I particularly like the section in which Desmond gets Parker to tell about the hard work he devoted to the development of his skill.

No comments: