Who was Paul Desmond? Most people who are even somewhat familiar with the great jazz players know Desmond’s playing after a note or two. But who was the person Desmond? That’s the great question that Doug Ramsey explores in his book “Take Five the public and private lives of Paul Desmond”.
Ramsey has the unique perspective of someone who was a close friend of Desmond and is a well respected jazz writer. He takes the reader on a journey like a guide through the voluminous research that makes up the book. Along the way we are introduced to the people who passed through Desmond’s life and from their stories emerges an image of Desmond more complex and layered than the public persona Desmond portrayed. The compartments of Paul Desmond’s life lay exposed by Doug Ramsey to form a kind of mosaic that provides the fullest view of the complete Desmond for his friends and his fans.
A darker side of Desmond also emerges from the book. A frank discussion of an addiction to benzedrine early in his life. A young man battling thoughts of depression and suicide. References to drug use later in his life including experimenting with LSD and cocaine indicate an individual searching for fulfillment somehow missing in his life. The contention by his female companion/girlfriend that he committed suicide perhaps with pills because “he had no quality of life left”. This contention has no merit according to the autopsy report of his death and perhaps one of the flaws of Ramsey’s book is that he doesn’t expressly point out if a given statement doesn’t hold water based on all of the facts he has gathered instead he leaves it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions. But in the end what comes across is the warm witty Desmond that was loved by all who were touched by him and his music along with many wonderful recollections of his friends, family, and those who played with him.
In interviews Desmond was likely to make up stories or to minimally embellish the truth but the book gets to the truth that lies behind the wit. Desmond’s often self critical of his playing, his ideas, his tone, and his intonation in his letters to family, friends, and the memos he wrote to himself almost as though he intended to cajole his playing to another level. He’s generally lavish in his praise of those who’s playing he respected and enjoyed. He’s supportive and engaging with his friends. His keen intellect in readily evident from not only the stories told in the book but by his letters.
The book goes into great detail about his early life and the mental illness that consumed his mother. His relationship with his father Emil comes across to the reader as the type of father son relationship that transcended the traditional father son relationship. The affection and respect that they had for each other oozes from their letters. The years Desmond spent learning about music from his father resulted in a musician who was aware of the complete musical picture and who became more than just a great soloist. Paul’s cousin gave access to Ramsey to all of the boxes of Desmond’s papers that they inherited upon his death as well as access to family recollections and a wealth of knowledge of these early days.
Desmond for years talked about the book he was going to write. He was a frustrated writer but his letters show a gift for literary genius. In 1947, he seemed to hint at the difficulty of putting together all of what he thought were the necessary talents of a great writer. Ramsey says, “if he had spent as much time writing as he did beating himself up on paper for not writing, and concocting schemes to force it, Desmond might have published more than one preview chapter of a book and the witty liner notes that graced some of his albums”. The excerpts of his writings, letters, and memos to himself that Ramsey includes paints a picture of Desmond for the reader to draw their own conclusions on why he never wrote the great American novel.
To some Desmond’s great contribution to the saxophone world was they he was the anti Charlie Parker. He had his own unique style and tone that was unique to Desmond. His style emphasized tone, melody, and form rather than exploring the realm of Bop. His solos were notable for their interpretations of the melody line and occasional use of musical quotes to the often amusement of his fellow players. Ramsey has enlisted noted musicians to provide transcriptions of some of Desmond’s solos to allow the reader a peek into the mind of a great creator of melodic inventions that many times exceeded the quality of the melody lines of the standard tune. A wonderful memo Desmond wrote to himself called “Operation Paradise” lays out the essence of Desmond’s philosophy about how he played. He says, “The important thing is to have a clear idea of the basic principles to follow and to keep them firmly in mind during the day-to-day influences of changing styles, other people’s preferences, etc. Otherwise you either dry up or become another of the many music chameleons about these days and if you’re going to do either, it’s pretty ridiculous to be a jazz musician at all. If you ever lose faith in your own taste, you’re 9/10 thru. And current fashions should influence your taste only insofar as they reflect the actual musical validity of what’s being played these days, which you should decide for your self, independently of what everybody else thinks”.
One point becomes inherently clear from reading this book, Desmond probably doesn’t become Desmond without Brubeck anymore than Brubeck becomes Brubeck without Desmond. These two musicians had a special bond that propelled them into the pantheon of jazz greats. Their ability to communicate on an almost intuitive level musically is illustrated throughout their career but is most obvious on their collection of duets. The realization that Desmond had about the need for him to work with Brubeck after their relationship was on the rocks in the late 1940’s shows a self realization of the power of their musical relationship. Ramsey illustrates this through the recollections of not only Brubeck but the memos that Desmond wrote himself and correspondence with his father during this time.
In the end, Desmond gave us beautiful lyrical jazz that continues to inspire and enrich the lives of all whom have the pleasure of hearing it. Ramsey’s book is an extension of that experience. What the reader will find is as complete of a picture of the many compartments of Paul Desmond’s life as is possible to paint. More complex filled with tales of struggles that perhaps we would prefer to remain ignorant of when it comes to heroes but in the end the reader is faced with the revelation that Paul Desmond in spite of all of his talent, deeds, mistakes, and demons is above all else human.
This is the kind of book that one wishes to savor.