The composer and alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond is one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time having played an integral role in the development of West Coast jazz. Join us as we take a whistle-stop tour through his life and six of his most influential recordings.

Born in 1924 in San Francisco, Paul Breitenfeid (his birth name) had a challenging childhood. His parents’ relationship was rocky, and his father disapproved of his love of music.

When Paul turned twelve, despite his father’s disdain for him being a musician, he studied the clarinet and later switched to alto saxophone when he entered college.

During WWII, Paul was drafted into the army, and although he never saw combat, he did meet and perform with pianist Dave Brubeck. This union was a precursor to what would later be known worldwide as The Dave Brubeck Quartet.

After his military discharge, Paul Breitenfeid was ready for a change both musically and personally. His first step: changing his last name. When asked what spurred the decision, he said Breitenfeid sounded “too Irish.” He searched the phone book for a new identity and settled on Desmond.

As an alto saxophonist, Paul was a pioneer of the West Coast cool movement. His tone was warm and smooth, reminiscent of a dry martini which Desmond admitted was his goal.

In 1951, Desmond joined the Dave Brubeck Quartet, a decision, and opportunity that would make him a household name during his lifetime.

Desmond’s laid-back solos and elegant tone were the perfect complements to Dave Brubeck’s improvisational skills and musical vision.

Together, the ensemble created stellar recordings that secured their destiny as jazz legends and made them international stars. ‘Time Out’ sold millions of copies and had the group’s iconic classic, ‘Take Five‘, penned by Desmond.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet broke up in 1967, and Desmond sought other avenues to express his music.

Paul collaborated with Gerry Mulligan on several projects and worked with guitarist Jim Hall and the Modern Jazz Quartet.

In 1976, Desmond reunited with Brubeck for the Dave Brubeck Quartet reunion tour. This tour would prove to be a blessing in disguise as Desmond died a year later from cancer. Classy to the end, Paul Desmond donated his possessions to charities and libraries.

Here are six albums that showcase the genius of Paul Desmond.

Time Out – Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959, Columbia)

This album introduced the Dave Brubeck Quartet to the world.

It featured Dave Brubeck on piano, Paul Desmond on alto saxophone, Joe Morello on drums and Eugene Wright on acoustic bass.

The album was one of the first jazz albums to sell over a million copies due to the success of their classic, ‘Take Five’. When listening to Time Out, note the use of the odd meter on the opening track and especially on ‘Take Five’.

Two Of A Mind – Paul Desmond & Gerry Mulligan (1962, RCA Victor)

Desmond unites his mellow alto playing with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. This twelve-song album is the second recording of these jazz legends, the first being in 1957.

The interplay between Desmond and Mulligan is a delight on the title song, “Two Of A Mind’.

With a driving rhythm section, Paul and Gerry complement each other while showcasing their brilliance at soloing. All of this with that cool, smooth Desmond sound.

Take Ten by Paul Desmond (1963, RCA Victor)

Guitarist Him Hall joins Desmond in this collaborative effort. The rhythm section features Eugene Wright on Bass (Track 1), bassist Gene Cherico (Tracks 2-8), and Connie Kay on drums.

Desmond revisits the success he had with “Take Five” with ‘Take Ten’. Like his first hit, “Take Ten” is in 5/4 meter, and the melody and chordal progression will remind listeners of ‘Take Five’.

With Latin music becoming increasingly popular during this time in America, Paul Desmond also introduced the sounds of bossa nova with the track, ‘Samba de Orfeu’.

Jazz Impressions of Japan – Dave Brubeck Quartet (1964, CBS Records)

This 8-song recording captures the quartet melding Japanese melodies with their West Coast styling.

The ballad ‘Fujiyama’ is where Desmond shines, his alto evoking images of the Orient and smoky jazz clubs.

‘“Tokyo Traffic’ is an upbeat composition utilizing eastern melodies and percussion to put the listener in the heart of the city.

Jazz Impressions of Japan is the Dave Brubeck Quartet at its finest

Paul Desmond & The Modern Jazz Quartet – Paul Desmond and The MJQ (1971, Stet Records)

This is the only recording of Paul Desmond with The Modern Jazz Quartet. Desmond’s “dry martini” tone blends perfectly with these master musicians on this seven-song recording.

Aside from Desmond, the recording features pianist John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Connie Kay.

Pure Desmond – Paul Desmond (1974, CTI Label)

Recorded only a few years before his passing, Pure Desmond features the star-studded lineup of Ed Bickert on guitar, Ron Carter bass, and Connie Kay on drums.

The original recording featured eight standards, while recent reissues include bonus tracks and modern recording techniques to refine and enhance the recording.

The opening track, ‘Squeeze Me’, has Desmond returning to his West Coast cool roots. Sonically, the album is a joy to listen to, and the musicianship by all is inspirational. Many agree that this recording captures Paul Desmond at his best.

Paul Desmond was an accomplished composer and jazz musician whose approach to playing the alto sax was both innovative and revolutionary.

With his “dry martini” tone and lilting phrasing, Paul Desmond will forever be one of the significant musicians of the West Coast jazz era.

Take a look at our Saxophone Section for more articles about the greats of jazz saxophone and be sure to check out our top ten essential albums from fellow West Coast legend, Stan Getz.

Discover Jazz
Discover Jazz

The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!